Ask a Bilingual Expert
Ask a Bilingual Expert
Raising a bilingual child? On this page, our very own Director of Learning Design and Efficacy, Sophia Espinoza, addresses some of the most common questions, concerns, and curiosities around the benefits of bilingualism. Get the scoop below!
Sophia began teaching in Chicago Public Schools through Chicago Teaching Fellows, learning to support both English Language Learners and students with neurodiverse needs. Among her proudest accomplishments is launching the AltSchool Spanish Immersion Program, with the mission of creating bilingual global citizens who are socially conscious and environmentally aware. Sophia holds a B.A. from Northwestern University and M.A.Ed. from Dominican University.
Benefits of Bilingualism (FAQs):
Yes! When you know two languages, your brain is constantly having to put effort into picking one over the other (they are both ‘active’ at the same time), which makes your brain stronger. It’s a heavy lift! Instead of punishing or embarrassing your child with a correction, model the correct way to say the whole phrase/sentence in one language, giving them the vocabulary they need to say it right the next time. Consistency with this method will lead to things being repeated again and again until they know the words themselves.
- Misconception: Learning two languages can be confusing for children.
Reality: Because the brain activates all the languages a child knows at once, sometimes they speak in a jumbled-sounding way; but this doesn’t mean they are confused, they are simply still developing proficiency in each language
- Misconception: It’s easy to learn a second language simply by exposing it to your child.
Reality: When children enter an English-dominant school, even if they grew up speaking another language, they need significant exposure to it (an estimated 30-40%) to keep proficiency in their native language. That means, even if they come home from school speaking English, don’t give up on speaking your native language in the household!
- Misconception: Bilingual children struggle academically.
Reality: This relates to the first point, which is that children are learning languages simultaneously. They may know a lot, but it is scattered across all their languages, so it might not be so clear if they are given an assessment in just one language. Keep in mind that though things like vocabulary and reading are slow to start, eventually they are much better off because they become proficient in two whole languages.
- Start early: Babies’ brains are sponges; Their rapidly forming neural connections allow them to learn everything, including languages, much easier.
- Stick with it: If children start to speak their second language instead of their native language at home, don’t give in and start speaking to them in their native language too; keep at it, it will pay off in the end.
- Make it Joyful: The best antidote to resistance or lack of motivation around practicing their native language is to make it fun! Pick movies, music, books, and podcasts that they enjoy in that language, so that way the practice is enjoyable
By introducing your child to a second language early, you are giving them the chance to access the cognitive benefits to being bilingual. Research shows that bilingual brains have better executive functioning in the following areas:
- Mental multitasking and self-control
- Working memory
Learning a new language goes hand in hand with learning about that language’s culture. It’s an opportunity to tap into the food, customs, stories, and other aspects of culture new to your child. Additionally, children who are bilingual can communicate with more people, bridging a gap between their world and the world of others. Hand in hand these two things create children who, studies have shown, have increased empathy and are better at perspective-taking.
Play-based learning in children aged PreK/K should take the form of pretend play. Pretend play, where prompts and props are used to spark an imaginative game or scenario, are crucial in not only developing social skills but cognitive skills too. When combined with learning a new language, children are eager and excited to communicate in their new vocabulary.
It’s fine if there are two, or even three languages spoken in the household, what’s most important is that parents freely speak their native language around their kids. It’s not confusing, in fact, you’re actually providing kids with a foundation in each language. Of course, they may mix languages at first, but that’s just because language learning is a heavy lift for any brain, young or old.
It’s very important to provide authentic opportunities for children to speak both languages. While parents may feel inclined to set aside “Spanish time’ and “English time”, this often ends up making language learning seem like a chore to kids. Authentic learning opportunities, on the other hand, allow kids to organically find the things they really love in another language, whether through reading, entertainment, music, or movement. This may mean letting your kid re-read the same books they love over and over again or listening to their favorite bilingual song on repeat. Let them pursue what they love which will in turn allow them to joyfully explore their new language. The Canticos App is the perfect place to access tons of bilingual books and songs that children can choose to listen to whenever they want.
Many kids may be in a classroom where they hear English all day, before going home and hearing Spanish, and as often happens, they may begin responding in English, or Spanglish. While this might worry parents, the biggest advice I can give is to ask your child in a very low-pressure way to try again in Spanish. Try to avoid saying things like “no, say it again in Spanish” or “no, I can’t understand you when you speak English,” those strategies don’t work very well, and can often make kids feel forced. You want to encourage your child to show you what they do know, and if it’s a matter of them not knowing, then you can simply provide them with the info they need to communicate correctly.
For example, if you ask your child a question, and they replied in English even though they knew the answer in Spanish, try saying “can you tell me that in Spanish?”, framing it like a question and lightly encouraging your child as opposed to demanding. And if it’s clear that they replied in English because they didn’t know the word in Spanish, you can easily demonstrate the correct response or give them new vocabulary so that they know how to say it in Spanish going forward. And of course, it’s always important to be really excited and happy when they do things right.
Even for kids who really do not want to speak Spanish, there may still be times when they need to communicate with a Spanish-speaking family member. If they choose to speak Spanish, give them positive feedback that lets them feel confident that they are saying things correctly. People often fail at speaking new languages when they feel they are going to mess up, so by establishing positive emotions around it, your child will associate good feelings with their second language.
“It won’t always go perfectly the first time you try one of these strategies, but maintaining consistency is key for results. And of course, the best thing you can do is continue speaking your native language to your child, if you stop, they will see that as a signal that they can too, which will make it harder to retain fluency.
“Don’t give up if your child is not replying, keep using these strategies. If they are absolutely not responding, that’s when I would recommend playing more bilingual music or reading books in Spanish, finding ways to spark their excitement and interest in the language. Once they do start speaking, even if only a little, praise them for the things they are doing well and that will be a great way to get them feeling excited and proud to speak a second language.
Parents who live in an English-speaking country need to remember that children are always going to learn English; Their world is in English, their peers speak English, even if they’re doing dual immersion programs, they are still going to school in English. I know that many native Spanish-speaking parents want their children to learn English because they want them to do well in school and feel that it’s important for their future. However, though it can feel a little counterintuitive, it’s important to give kids as much education as possible in the home in Spanish. They will inevitably learn English, and it will be even better if they learn their native language first, a strong foundation in Spanish will help kids gain a stronger mastery of English.
If you want to teach something like the solar system to kids, you should teach it in their second language. They will most likely have the opportunity to learn everything in English at school, so by teaching them certain subjects in Spanish, they’ll learn new, specific topic vocabulary that they wouldn’t get the chance to learn in everyday conversation, or even in Spanish class.
I always encourage as much Spanish exposure as possible. Don’t worry about immersion classes availability or not being completely fluent as a parent. Use the Spanish you know, even if you may need to speak Spanglish, I sometimes only know a word in Spanish or vice versa, which is totally okay. This won’t be confusing to your child, in fact, you’re giving them more opportunities to practice Spanish. Try to find ways to fill the gaps in your language knowledge, through apps, books, and music. I recommend the Canticos Bilingual Preschool App, which gives kids so much exposure through stories, activities, and music, allowing them to learn in an authentic and engaging way, perfect for parents with limited fluency. TV, as many of us know as immigrants and English learners, is a great way to strengthen a second language which is why the Canticos videos are perfect for preschool-aged children. Take advantage of the many different resources available for your child, your Spanish is going to improve too! The Canticos App is a great option for all parents whether for English speaking parents who want more Spanish reinforcement at home, or households with some Spanish and some English, or Spanish speaking households, it’s great for all these environments because the app has English and Spanish and depending on where your child is at we provide them with guided learning pathways, give then the reinforcement they need based on their current proficiency, whether they are very fluent, a little bit of learning Spanish for the first time, we give them new learners, fluent.
Now that our world is more interconnected than ever, there are plenty of families where each parent could be from a different country in Latin America, with distinctive dialects, vocabulary, slang, and culture. And that’s totally ok for kids to be exposed to. Their perspectives are broadened and they learn to communicate cross-culturally, it’s a thing to be celebrated. Sometimes kids may switch vocabulary when talking to different parents, which is absolutely fine. They’re not confused, if anything this shows their flexibility. They could have as many as five words for one item, three in Spanish two in English, giving them a stronger sense of language in general. For parents that may feel the need to find a neutral ground with their native dialects, not to worry, all research says that you want to encourage and expose children to different languages.
There is no simple equation for teaching Spanish. That being said, immersion school programs have been found to be very effective because the child is exposed to Spanish for most of their day, and only Spanish, so they learn quickly out of necessity. If there are Spanish-speaking adults at home, have them speak only in Spanish to your child. Essentially, the more Spanish, the better!
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