How to Raise a Bilingual Child … When You’re Not Bilingual

When my first child was six months old, I practically gave up on my dream of raising a bilingual child. My husband’s and my high school Spanish consists of, “Hola. Como estas?” We weren’t going to be much help.  Since I was going back to work, I looked all over for a Spanish-speaking nanny, but they just weren’t abundant in the area where we were living. I was so excited to find an infant Spanish class in our neighborhood, but since we were the only family who signed up, it was soon cancelled. I even called Spanish tutors to see if they would come over and talk and play with my son in Spanish. Practically none of them returned my phone calls. “Oh well, it’s a lost cause,” I thought.

So, I’m happy to report, at the age of seven, that same son can converse in Spanish and count to 1,000 in Mandarin. How did we do it? A lot of different ways.

Immersion School

I have been pleasantly surprised with the public school foreign language choices we have had in every area we’ve lived. Our son started kindergarten in a Spanish immersion school in California (at a public magnet school). This will forever be my favorite first-day-of-school picture:

first day of school photo

The look on his face sums it up – “What are these people saying?” It was true immersion; from the first day of school, every word the teacher said was in Spanish.

The first month was rough. Not only was he transitioning to a new school, a longer day, and less play, but everything he heard was gobbledygook. He started taking naps again because his brain was so exhausted. He was throwing tantrums, and he didn’t want to go to school; it seemed like a mistake. But, then this magic lightbulb went off after about one month. All of the sudden, it clicked. Since that day, he can understand when someone speaks to him in Spanish. He may respond in English, but he understands what they’re saying. And his pronunciation and natural accent blow me away. He makes fun of me when I try to pronounce “rojo” or “perro.”

Since we left California, we weren’t able to continue on at that school. But, I’ve been pleased with the other opportunities we’ve had through public school. Currently, my son and daughter go into school an hour early twice a week for Spanish class; that’s in addition to what is already taught in their classroom.

Foreign Language Childcare

When we moved to New York City and found that babysitters charge at least $35/hour, I realized I needed a childcare solution. For years, we had considered having a live-in au pair but always talked ourselves out of it. Once we did the math (you may be surprised how affordable an au pair is), we decided we had to do it. We searched for someone who spoke Spanish and found an amazing young woman named Gabby to move in with us. She speaks Spanish to the kids, and naturally the baby has picked up on it the quickest. At two and a half years old, his Spanish vocabulary is just as large as his English one (which makes figuring out toddler speak even that more challenging, ha ha).

Toddler and au pair

Obviously, this isn’t a solution for everyone, but you can try it in other forms: hiring a foreign language-speaking babysitter for date night, or specifically searching for bilingual preschools. Most of our children attended one and at least got the basics down, like numbers and colors.

Take Advantage of All Opportunities

Our mailman in California was Hispanic. I made the children speak to him in Spanish. The mailman loved it. He started teaching the kids a “word of the day.” The children looked forward to it each day, and years later they still talk about him. You can do this anywhere; I have found most people are thrilled to speak to you in their native language, and are excited to encourage your kids.

Music

For $9.99 on iTunes, you can practically teach your children (basic) Spanish. I can’t count how many times I’ve listened to this annoying song that sings, “Blue is ‘azul.’ Yellow is ‘amarillo.'” (Especially when the children were young and couldn’t tell me to turn it off.) But, guess what? My kids know that blue is “azul” and yellow is “amarillo.”

Learn It Yourself

I know I’m pushing the overachiever envelope with this one, but it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been called a dork. I go to Spanish class once a week, with a bunch of other mid-lifers who regretted not learning a foreign language when they were young. It’s fun to be with other adults, to activate that part of your brain again, and feel like you’re doing something for yourself. (Plus, you’d be shocked at how quickly that high school foreign language comes back to memory.) If you don’t have the chance to get out of the house, there are tons of apps and online programs now that make learning a foreign language possible.

Live Abroad

Ok, I know this isn’t a realistic solution for practically… anyone. But, that’s the same thing I would have said about our family a few years ago. Then, my husband finds a great career opportunity in Mexico City and (despite his wife’s attempts to tell him he’s crazy) he realizes it’s our families’ chance to immerse ourselves in a different culture, and next thing you know I’m eating guacamole at every meal.

family photo in Mexico

It was an amazing experience. My children were truly immersed – they took dance class and swim lessons in Spanish (and were forced to figure out what the teachers were saying). They are now obsessed with Frida Kahlo, and can point out Teotihuacan in any photograph. It makes me proud.

Tutor

After seeing how easily my children can pick up a new language, and even more impressive: hearing their natural accent, I wanted to cram more into their sponge-like brains while I could. Because Mandarin is spoken by more people than any other language, I found a Mandarin tutor for kids (and we live in Cincinnati, Ohio – not exactly an international cultural capital). She comes to the house once a week and teaches the kids body parts, colors, numbers, etc. They can’t converse in it, but they’re developing an accent and learning how to write the characters. I figure if nothing else, it will lay a foundation if they want to learn it down the road.

And, with 6,000+ languages out there, who knows what’s next.

Julie Forbes

Julie Kroenig Forbes graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She spent the next 10 years working as a news anchor and reporter in various cities, most recently in Nashville, Tennessee. After a few years in Northern California and New York, she now lives in Ohio with her husband and four kids.
Julie Forbes

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