The Rewards of Raising Bilingual Toddlers

The Rewards of Raising Bilingual Toddlers


For a long time, speaking to my baby son in Spanish felt odd. Talking to a baby is basically a monologue, except for a few coos and gurgles here and there. I knew that my son was soaking in every little word, and that all our little rhymes and descriptions and baby-talk  had their purpose. But it was pretty annoying listening to myself, talking and talking– I know how to baby-talk in English, but in Spanish? I was so aware of the monologue, which I at least wouldn’t be busy correcting had it been in English. Thank goodness most of the time no one around understood me.


bilingual toddler

bilingual toddlers

Now my son is 20 months old, and busy learning new words every day. He seems to say words in whichever language is easiest. We say, “Di hola,” and he says hi, or “¿Quieres ir arriba?” and he replies with up. But agua, chau, arroz, papá and others he can say as well. And he understands everything we say in both languages! It is a delightful and fascinating thing to watch a child learn to speak and understand, and even more so in multiple languages. (more…)

Bilingual Baby Signing

Bilingual Baby Signing

Inside: Bilingual babies sing language.


We have been using baby sign language with our first son, since he was about ten months old. I meant to start earlier, and teach more signs than I did, but even the 5 or 6 signs we’ve mastered have been incredibly helpful. And it’s much more pleasant than hearing a piercing shriek every five seconds. I didn’t realize how long it is that you have a baby or toddler who knows what he wants, but can’t say it yet!


Signs are so helpful because they give baby something constructive to do, instead of just hearing, “no screaming” (or grunting or squealing, or insert your child’s choice communication technique). If my son wants something really badly he just starts signing “more” and “please” and whatever other sign he can think of, because he knows it’s the fastest way to get something!


I think signing is perfect for bilingual kids, because it connects the two languages. In this video, he’s about 16 months. I’m asking about parts of his face, etc, but it does start with several signs:





Because we live with family, Janio hears a mix of English and Spanish, especially at the dinner table. We are all fascinated by his understanding of both languages, already. We will remind him to say, “por favor,” and he’ll sign it, and my mom will prompt, “say please,” and he knows exactly what she means. Phrases like please, thank you, or all done can be very abstract, so signing has been a great way to learn them in two languages. This article from SpanglishBaby refers to baby signs as a “bridge” between languages, which is a great analogy for the role of baby signing in multilingual households.


After writing this, I am motivated myself to go learn some more signs! Here’s a link to basic signs with good visuals. It’s so simple to teach signs: simply use the sign every time you say that particular word, whichever language you happen to speaking. No extra time for parents or baby, except the time you take to learn the signs yourself.


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bilingual baby signs

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Fun Spanish Learning Games for Kids (Preschool & Early Elementary)

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Back to School Spanish Activities: The Ultimate Round-Up of Plans and Ideas

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Why Bilingual Families Need Books

Why Bilingual Families Need Books

When I was pregnant with our first, I would confidently pat my expanding belly and share with friends our plans to speak Spanish at home. We were right to make this plan: our little ones simply wouldn’t get enough Spanish time only speaking with Papá, a native Spanish-speaker. If we truly wanted them to be fluent they’d have to hear it from me too. Because I really do enjoy speaking Spanish, what I’d forgotten to consider was my love for my native tongue, English. Along came baby, and I wanted to coo over him in English, the way I knew how, and sing the lullabies my mother sang to me. Speaking Spanish with my kids, while an amazing gift to give, was going to take more out of me than I’d considered.


books and a non-native mama


Being a monolingual or non-native speaking parent is quite unique. Sometimes I envy my Latina friends here, who know their kids will naturally pick up English and can relax into their native Spanish at home. But if bilingual children are in fact the goal, parents like me simply have to be intentional: we have to get creative, and we have to put in extra legwork. If you are a monolingual and don’t speak the target language you will be especially reliant on songs, technology, or other people. For me, as a non-native speaker, children’s books have been my saving grace, and here’s why:


1. Books help ME, as a non-native speaking parent.

As we read books in Spanish, my own vocabulary expands. Reading together takes the pressure off of me: we are still speaking in Spanish, but I am not having to think or second-guess myself. And of course, my language skills are being strengthened along the way. One of our current favorites is El mejor libro de palabras de Richard Scarry, which has even the tiniest of illustrations labeled in Spanish. When my son points to “diesel switcher” (“la locomotora diesel de maniobras,” obviously!) on the trains page, we both learn a new term. Although technology can be helpful, there is no substitute for reading to your children. It should be a focus if possible because the language is coming from you—it’s your voice, your intonation, your lap—even while you, thankfully, are getting a break mentally.


2. Books provide natural boundaries for fitting English into the day, too.


We are living with family right now, an interesting language situation. Everyone upstairs speaks English; here in the basement it’s our little family speaking Spanish. From what I’ve researched, it really IS important to have perimeters for language: when our family speaks which language, with whom, etc. At the moment I want to keep it simple and not constantly mix when it’s just us, though later we might flex more. Since there are certain stories and poems in English I want to share with my children, books seem to be the perfect, natural, boundary for that. When we open our board book of Robert Louis Stevenson poems, it’s English time, and when we close it we’re back to speaking Spanish again. Books give me space to share English literature near and dear to me, without creating the confusion switching mid-conversation might.


3. Books can be translated.


Thank goodness for this one, right? I always think good books originally written in Spanish are a great find, but most of the books I come across are translations. Some translations are badly done, but there are more and more classics coming out in a variety of languages. Sometimes I will translate simple texts like “the cow says moo” as we go (which is great for mommy or daddy’s brain!), but it’s much nicer to find books already in Spanish. Many of my childhood favorites I want to pass on are available in other languages. I insist on the original Goodnight, Moon because I prefer the more lyrical English version, but how fun is it to read El Cuento de Ferdinando in Spanish, as the story takes place in Spain? If you are very new to the language you’re teaching your child, familiar stories are great because you will get more out them.


4. Books create an emotional bond to the language.

Technology and flashcards may have their place, but nothing compares to the emotional and cognitive processes that occur in both of us when I cuddle up with my son and we get lost in a good story together. Reading a story we love, or a poem that sounds just right, subconsciously deepens our love for the language itself. My son loves Cinco Monitos Subidos a un Árbol  right now and squeals with delight every time we get to the “Krak!” part. As we read it (over and over again) he is forming an attachment to that story in Spanish. Children need to feel affection for what they are learning, if they are to learn it well.

Even though there is something of a loss for me in not speaking my native English at home much, it is not certainly not all sacrifice!– we are developing our family culture and adding to what we know and love. One day my children will sing our family lullabies and say silly rhymes with their children, too, with one lovely difference: for them it will be the most natural thing in the world to do so in two languages, not one.


This post was written as part of the Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival, hosted by Maria Babin of Trilingual Mama.

Our Favorite Bilingual Pictionary

Our Favorite Bilingual Pictionary

favorite bilingual pictionary

As you build up your Spanish library make sure you have this one: Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever / El mejor libro de palabras de Richard Scarry. It is a must for for every Spanish/English-speaking family with little ones. In fact, I just walked over to the computer here with it, and Janio gave me an extremely hopeful look: it is one book he always asks for.

If you aren’t familiar with Richard Scarry, you are in for a treat. He has wonderful little stories, but even better are the detailed, imaginative drawings. He manages to pack every page with interesting illustrations without being overwhelming.

Many Spanish language resources are full of Spanish picture dictionaries and flashcards, but I think it’s much better to have real literature in your hands. Most of the dictionaries’ illustrations that I’ve seen are lacking or too busy. This may not be a dictionary, technically, but it’s much more engaging and worth your money than most illustrated dictionaries.

I love this book because even though my Spanish vocabulary is fairly extensive, as my son gets older there are more and more words I realize I don’t know. (Crane? Windmill? Boxcar?) We pretty much camp out on the trucks, trains, and farm pages right now, but hopefully I’ll get to study words for the grocery store and house one day too.  If you are wanting to teach your baby or toddler Spanish, but feel nervous about a limited vocabulary, this should help tremendously.


5 Reasons We’re Raising Bilingual Kids

5 Reasons We’re Raising Bilingual Kids

Inside: Why we’re raising bilingual kids.

We never expected to be here, raising a family bilingually. My husband didn’t speak English until after we got married, and I didn’t speak Spanish until after I met him. And yet here we are, a mix of cultures and languages, like an increasing number of families around the world.

For a long time, here in the U.S., it was common for parents not to pass on their native tongue to their children. This was either done purposefully– due to shame or fear that the children wouldn’t learn English–or, accidentally. Often parents did not realize that failing to intentionally raise their children with both languages meant that their children lost the home language, or never developed fluency. Today, many families are waking up to this and realize that passing on a native language (or two!) is a precious gift. Here are our top 5 reasons for choosing to intentionally raise our kids bilingually:


1. Family Connections


My family speaks English, Pocho’s family mainly speaks Spanish. We want our children to be able to communicate easily and comfortably with both families. Both Spanish and English are part of Pocho and I, and of our marriage. We want the two languages to be a natural part our family life and who we are. Some jokes just don’t translate! Language is cultural, too, and we hope to give our children a strong identity for both American and Peruvian culture. We are, centrally, a Peruvian-American family.


2. Early Bilingualism is a Gift


As someone who struggled to become more or less fluent in Spanish, I want to give my children at least two languages from the beginning. Some things can be learned later in life, but language becomes more difficult to master the longer you wait to begin–and, I suspect it’s simpler with younger children than with teenagers. I have musician friends who lament the fact that their skills will always be slightly checked because their parents didn’t start them young enough. We can’t control what our children choose later, but they cannot control how early their language exposure begins. There are a lot of things we aren’t able to do for our kids, but speaking Spanish from birth IS one powerful gift we can give.


3. Education


Studies show that bilingualism offers enhanced brain development. It also opens up future career opportunities, as well as easier acquisition of a third or fourth language. Here in the U.S., foreign language still doesn’t receive too much attention in most schools. As an educator, I think it is a disservice to wait until high school to begin serious language study, when beginning younger would be more effective and less stressful. Many of us who took a couple of language courses in high school struggled to comprehend much, and then have since lost most of what we learned. We hope our kids experience languages positively and productively.


4. Kids Who Think Globally


It is easy to live in the United States and think “small”– whether that means only having friends that look like you or being afraid of different cultures, even those within your city. It is also easy, if you can’t speak a culture’s native language, to either idealize or be prejudiced against its people. In the U.S., our Hispanic population is rapidly growing, and forming real friendships through shared language is a wonderful ability. We want our children to appreciate other cultures and embrace the differences around them. Even if they never leave the country on their own, speaking another language will help them to think critically and generously about the world around them.

bicultural families


5. It’s Pretty Cool to be Bilingual


There! I said it. That’s a terrible word choice for a teacher, but when I finally became comfortable with Spanish, the confidence boost it gave me was unbelievable. I had actually mastered something useful and exciting, and, yes, I felt cool for once. There are many incentives for raising a bilingual family, but for us it really comes down to the joy of being fluent in multiple languages.

We realize it’s easier said than done to do this. Sometimes the extra effort is HARD! But at the end of the day, we would regret not passing on this huge part of ourselves to our little ones. Our hope is that they will love the open world they have been given and see it for the blessing it is.


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