Lessons learned from trying to raise bilingual kids in America

by Richard and Shaundra Culatta

There’s an old joke that goes, “You call someone who speaks two languages bilingual. You call someone who speaks three languages trilingual. You call someone who speaks one language American.” Only it’s not really a joke. 66% of children in the world are raised to speak more than one language — but only 6% of children in the U.S. are multilingual. [Associated Press]

10 years ago, when planning our future family, we decided that we wanted to raise our kiddos speaking two languages. There is a mountain of research on the benefits of being bilingual. There are the obvious ones, like improved cognitive ability, but also some unexpected advantages, like improved self-regulation and delayed dementia.

This is a good point to mention that before college we were both as monolingual native-English-speaking-pasty-white Americans as you could find. Neither of us had grown up speaking a second language and our parents on both sides only spoke English. This made the thought of raising bilingual children seem daunting on a good day, and downright crazy on the rest. Both of us had learned Spanish in college (and Richard served an LDS mission in Mexico) so we decided we were going to give it a shot. Not surprisingly we made a lot of mistakes along the way. But we’re both pretty obstinate about sticking with an idea when we set out to do it.

Throughout the process we felt like were were going it alone most of the time. We didn’t know anyone else who was trying to do what we were doing and never really had anyone who could give us advice. So if you, or someone you know, is considering raising bilingual kiddos in your non-native language, we humbly offer the following 9 tips we wish we’d known when we started. The examples are for Spanish (because that’s what we did) but they could apply to most languages.

Tip #1: All the time is barely enough

We heard about families that tried to alternate between speaking English and the target language (one day on, one day off; of mom speaks Spanish, dad speaks English, etc.). We found that it is incredibly confusing to keep track of plans like that, which makes it hard for everyone to stay consistent. But more importantly you have to speak the target language as often as you can possibly manage if you want to have a chance of balancing out the dominant language of the culture you live in.

Tip #2: Simba Speaks Spanish

One of the most useful things we learned is that all of the Disney characters speak Spanish. We don’t have cable in our house, so we only watch movies. Before buying movies we would check to make sure they had a spanish language track (many do). We would always change the language to spanish when watching a movie. Richard found a DVD player that allowed us to set Spanish as the default language when you put in a DVD. Recently Netflix has begun offering movies in Spanish as well (although it is incredibly annoying that you cannot filter movies by language in Netflix, so it takes a bit of clicking around to find them).

Tip #3: Amazon Speaks Spanish Too

It turns out you can find almost any children’s book translated into Spanish on Amazon. Almost all of our childrens books were in Spanish. This taught our kids AND us all kinds of basic vocab and sentence structure. While the toddler in our lap was learning the word “frog”, we were learning that “Mira la rana verde con bultitos” was the command form for “look at the green frog,” that the adjective is placed before the noun, and that “bultitos” is another way to say “spots”. Occasionally there was a book we really liked (e.g. Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive the Bus) that wasn’t available in Spanish, so we’d just make up our own translation for those books (which gave us practice translating).

Tip #4: Websites and Apps Help

Many kids sites are available in Spanish. Dreambox and BrainPop, for example, both have Spanish versions. It’s harder to find good iPhone apps in Spanish, but there are a few that worked, like ABC Magico and Fun Spanish

Plus, we felt less guilty about sticking our kiddos in front of an iPad when we needed some peace and quiet because, at the end of the day, they were learning another language!

Tip #5: Don’t sweat it when people look at you funny in the grocery store.

We were both caught off guard by how self-conscious we felt when we would speak Spanish to our kids in public. This wouldn’t phase people in other parts of the world, but Americans look at you funny when they see anglo-parents speaking another language to their children. After awhile you just get used to it and it becomes second nature. And it’s pretty great when they see your four year old talking to a native speaker in beautiful perfect Spanish.

Tip #6: Listen to Music

There’s lots of great music available in Spanish. Including kids songs. Some of our favorites were Aserrin, Aserran, and Rondas (Erica Busch) for the little ones, Maná and Gipsy Kings when they got a little older. This was a great way to turn car time (there is a lot of it with shuttling 4 kids to their respective activities) into language learning time.

Tip 7: It helps to take trips to Spanish speaking countries

This can be expensive, but can have huge benefits. We recently took our kiddos on a trip to Costa Rica (super safe, not far, and less expensive than many other destinations). We purposefully picked places to stay that weren’t super touristy so there weren’t many English speakers (we stayed with native families). We enrolled our kiddos in school there for a few weeks. There is nothing like a little peer pressure to get your kiddos to speak the target language.

Tip 8: Peer pressure is great

Finding friends that speak Spanish is very helpful in reinforcing the language. As our kids got older, they didn’t like speaking in Spanish because as they spent more time outside our home they realized they were doing something different. They became self-conscious, and once you combine that with teens and tweens, you’ve got some major battles on your hands. But once in awhile we were able to find families with kids of the same ages that were native Spanish speakers, and that was all it took to get them to switch. We even occasionally found out from their school teachers they had been voluntarily sitting by and helping out/translating for the Spanish-speaking kids who were struggling with English, and enjoyed being able to help.

Tip 9: Get your explanation ready.

Be ready to explain what you’re doing. A lot. Especially to family. For the first few weeks our family thought that this was a cute thing we were doing. But as weeks turned into months and years, they began asking how long we were going to keep this up for? This can take some hand holding for some families. Occasionally we had to remind family members that just because we spoke to our kiddos in Spanish, didn’t mean they weren’t also perfectly fluent in English as well.

So there are our tips. The road was bumpy, but it *gasp* seems to have worked. All four of our kiddos (one missing from the photo) entered school fluent in two languages. We know those reading this will have even better tips than what we came up with. If so, please post them in the comments!