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Raising a Bilingual Toddler: Our Spanish Adventure

Christa knows a lot of vocabulary, but can't string sentences together in Espanol. That doesn't mean her toddler can't be a master of both.


We were at my daughter's six-month appointment, in the waiting room. My toddler was talking up a storm. He brought a block to the receptionist and said, "Ocho!" He was right; the block had an "8". She turned and asked if we spoke Spanish at home. I smiled. During the appointment, while his sister was being examined, he pointed to the cat on the wall and said, "Gato!"

The doctor paused her assessment and asked, "How many words in Spanish does he know?"

I answered, "About 30% to 50% of his vocabulary is Spanish."

Naturally, she asked, "Do you speak Spanish at home?" I smiled.

Spanish Failure

"Do you speak Spanish at home?"

No, not well.

I am fluent in English and Sarcasm. I took two semesters of Spanish in college, maintaining excellent grades, but I cannot speak Spanish at all. Well, I can carry very basic small talk. My husband is bilingual. He speaks Spanish and English. He jokes, saying I have more vocabulary in Spanish than he does. Alas, I cannot string sentences together. I am a Spanish failure.

I know enough Spanish that I can read books in Spanish. I will get books from the library to read my children. The first book that I read in Spanish to my children was Buenas Noches, Luna. It gave me confidence. Now, I am adventurous with my library selections.

"Buenas Noches, Luna"

For Heritage

My husband is Hispanic. He is very interested in Mex-Americana history and culture. In fact, he is studying Mex-Americana history in graduate school. He will speak to the children in Spanish periodically, especially when they are sad or unwell. He also listens to Spanish music with them.

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Partly due to my husband's historical interest and his Hispanic background, and aside from the obvious benefit of bilingualism, I wanted my children to know Spanish as part of their identity. Learning Spanish needed to become part of their daily lives, so they could appreciate their heritage. We practice Spanish together, the children and I, twice a day. We practice Spanish in a natural way, so the children do not even know they are learning.

Methods and Materials

We practice Spanish formally twice a day, but we speak Spanish throughout the day. Spanish probably contributes to our conversations about 30% of the day, even if my husband is not home.

  • 20-Minute Spanish videos: Kid Start Spanish has four 20- to 40-minute DVDs that are complete Spanish immersion. They have a whole Spanish learning system. I purchased this program when my son was a few months old. This was the best Spanish investment I have made. My children and I love watching these videos to practice Spanish. We also use the flashcards and the book daily.
  • Anchor Charts: Part of the way I incorporate Spanish practice is through the use of anchor charts. My infant and toddler cannot read, but I can. Placing anchor charts in our play areas has helped me remember words.
  • YouTube Videos: There are two YouTube channels we watch or play in the background. The first is Rock 'N Learn, which has three English-Spanish vocabulary videos. The second is Super Simple Espanol, which has classic children's songs in Spanish.
  • Spanish Stories: The Spanish Experiment has classical stories in Spanish. I love listening to these with my children. I find every time we listen to them, I understand them more. I know this is also true for my children.
  • Library Books: As previously mentioned, I borrow books from the library in Spanish. When we go to the library, I make sure to select one book in Spanish for every book I get in English.
  • Podcasts: I subscribe to the "News in Slow Spanish" podcast. When I clean the house, I will put on the podcast to get our minds familiar with Spanish.
  • Puppet Show: I remember enjoying puppet shows as a child. Occasionally, I will watch an episode of "Salsa" with my children. This is a puppet show in Spanish with lots of hidden learning.

Learning Spanish Is Easy!

It is easy to incorporate Spanish learning in a child's life, even if you do not know Spanish yourself. For my family, we sprinkle Spanish into our daily lives throughout the day.

  • In the morning, we watch a Kid Start Spanish video and listen to Super Simple Espanol nursery songs.
  • Before lunch, we might read a book in Spanish.
  • In the afternoon, we might watch a YouTube video or listen to a story in Spanish.
  • In the evening, we might read another book in Spanish.

Whenever we count, we count in English and Spanish. Whenever we color, we name the crayons in English and Spanish. Whenever we talk about animals, we use both the English and Spanish name. My children know Spanish words, numbers, and colors without much effort on my part. It is part of their everyday lives.

I'm Learning, Too!

One cannot be surrounded in a language without learning it. My son is two-and-a-half. My daughter is a one-year-old. My vocabulary in Spanish is robust. My ability to string sentences together is still poor, but it is improving. With each day, I gain confidence. I remember more. As my children speak Spanish, I begin to speak Spanish, too. Now, when my toddler speaks to me in Spanish, I can answer him in Spanish (most of the time). It is my goal that by the time he can read in Spanish, I can claim Spanish fluency.


Lucy on September 26, 2019:

As a mother who is trying to keep up with her son in Spanish, this article was fascinating to me. Thanks Christa! My son also loves the YouTube videos and the Spanish stories site! I'll certainly get him to check out the news site you mentioned when he's a bit older. I'm taking lessons once a week with a Spanish tutor on a site called I'm also going to try to go to a language exchange as I heard about one on Meetup. I need it or I won't be able to keep up!

Liz Westwood from UK on June 08, 2019:

Being bilingual is a great gift to have. I have learned some Spanish at a class. My understanding of written Spanish is way ahead of understanding quick speech and of my own speaking Spanish. Hopefully one day I will get there.

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