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Raising Bilingual Children

Hola amigos, my name is Sandrita and I am the Mexican-American expert at Spanish Online (the one who writes the recipes, as Stacey is no great cook :) I would like to share with you how my husband and I are are raising our three children in a bilingual setting, and a few key points that I think are important. My husband Juan speaks only limited English, so it has been a real priority for us to have children that can communicate both with their parents and with the outside world.

My oldest son, Alejandro is eight years old and in second grade (Dios mío, los años van rápido!) We were very fortunate that being bilingual came natural to Alex. We started speaking to him only in Spanish from day one, and he seemed to learn the majority of his English by watching Sesame Street and cartoons! That may sound funny, but Alex took to immitating the children on TV, speaking new words and phrases each day. While occasionally he would mix these words in with the Spanish he already knew, I was astounded by how even at an early age, he understood that these were 2 distinct languages. In addition, he also learned quickly that Spanish was more effective with Juan, and English more effective with me! That shows you how important motivation can be when it comes to learning, and nothing motivates a child stronger than the desire to be understood.

My second daughter is named Erika. She is a precocious five year old who just started Kindergarten. While she is just as bright as Alex, in the beginning Erika had zero interest in speaking Spanish. Her first words were in English, and it stayed that way for a long time. This was quite frustrating for us! I found that Erika didn't begin speaking Spanish until we visited Mexico for the second time as a family. Somehow being immersed in an ALL Spanish speaking environment, where there was "no way out" - gave my little Erika the extra push she needed to begin replicating & reproducing the words she was surrounded by. I find that she still has trouble making sense of irregular verbs and words that don't fit the patterns she already knows, but making mistakes doesn't seem to phase her. Perhaps the fact that her older brother speaks to her exclusively in English has also been one of the reasons Erika was slow to take an interest in Spanish. If she needed something from her Dad, she could just get Alex to translate. The lesson to be learned here is once again about motivation & necessity: if kids have no real need to use the language, it is hard to make it stick. Simulating immersion & making Spanish mandatory even for a small period of time each day can be a real help.

My third child is 20 months old, and named Aracely. "Ari," as she is affectionally known - responds much quicker to Spanish than to English. I'm not exactly sure why this is, ¡así que quién sabe! It may be that she is genuinely daddy's little girl...My older children tell our friends that "Ari no habla inglés, no más español). So it appears she may have the opposite problem that Erika had, in that she doesn't seem interested in learning English. However at 20 months she is still very young, and I'm sure that her desire to communicate with both her siblings in their "special lingo" and the outside world, will make English easy for Ari to learn. At least I hope so, or I will have to send her down to live with the in laws in Michoacán! :)

Growing up as the children of 1st generation Mexican Americans, my brother and I learned the importance of keeping our language alive from my dear padre Damian. I recall reading books with him as a child, and even though the books were in English, he would ask me to read them aloud to him in Spanish. As I read he would help me along with the words and correct my grammar. While I didn't always find that too fun at the time...I am eternally grateful for his efforts. For my father, education was the most valuable and important thing he could give us. He stressed the importance of an education in getting a good job. He was a hop laborer who worked hard to support his family, and he wanted my brother and I to learn to work with our heads not our bodies!

I have cousins that do not speak any Spanish. This is ridiculous according to my father! How can you call yourself a Mexican and not speak the language...He lectured his in-laws on the importance of raising bilingual children and keeping traditions alive, but this always fell on deaf ears. Now as adults when I talk to my cousins, they really regret not being able to speak Spanish, and have trouble communicating with our older aunts and uncles. I also see this with my own neices and nephews.

My husband's brother has two children ages 11 and 9, who speak almost no Spanish. I've never quite understood how they communicate with their father, who doesn't speak English! It saddens me to see this, and I try to teach the kids spanish when they spend time with me. As a Christmas gift they are getting some of Stacey's great products from the Spanish Online store...:) The bottom line is that if you want your children to be bilingual, effort and careful attention matters more than whether you are native Spanish speakers. I hope you've found these tidbits helpful - I am happy to answer any questions that any of you may have, just write a comment here on the blog or send us an email.

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