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Dear Debi,
I’m very interested in teaching my kids Spanish. But it’s difficult for me since my husband only speaks English. I try to speak to my kids in Spanish, but they always answer me in English. What can I do so my children won’t be confused?
Diana Pittack
Debi's Tips
Debi Gutierrez
Debi Gutierrez
  • Learning languages comes naturally to kids
  • Kids easily learn languages between birth & age 12
  • Being bilingual is an asset
Expert Advice
Moisés Román
Moisés Román
UCLA Early Care & Education
Being bilingual means learning more than one language at a time, in the case of young children. Typically in the U.S., we have children learning their home language, Spanish, Korean, Hmong, etc. along with English.

A home language is really the language that children are exposed to from the moment they are born through the care of the adults that surround them. The home language is so much more than words. It is how children begin to see the world and experience it—it is the way they will eventually describe their culture, feelings, actions.

The home language is generally determined by adults because it is the language they feel most comfortable in communicating and one that holds the tradition of the family. The home language is also tied to the foods, expressions, celebrations, media, etc. that is in the household or in many instances the neighborhood represents the language. The home language also has specific vocabulary or words, expressions and grammatical structures that children pick up through conversations, interactions, or experiences. The home language also provides exposure to the sounds of the language or languages that a child will produce.

It is not confusing for children to learn more than one language at time. When children are born they are really in situation where their brain is prepared to receive and store language. Through exposure to their environments and the loving adults around them children are picking up language through their every day activities and interactions. Language learning is multi-sensory. It happens through everything children see, hear, touch, taste, and smell.

There is substantial research to indicate that the home language is critical to maintain for both cultural and learning reasons. When children learn language they learn more than just words, they learn the meaning of their world through language. It provides a perspective to live that is unique to their home, their experiences, their traditions, and communication to those around them that are dear to children whether near or far.

When children lose a home language, they lose more than just words and ways to talk with their family members, but they lose of a sense of self. They no longer have the foundation of experiences they grew up with. Suddenly the foods, names, or customs, or feelings they are use to expressing in one language that was common, now must be learned and expressed in ways that are totally unfamiliar. Another major consequence in losing a home language is that there many times becomes a verbal gap of communication between family members.

Children learn more than one language at a time by categorizing each language and learning each language’s way of sounds, words, grammar, and other nuances of the language. Children learn any language through experiences that are repeated over and over and involves multi-sensory learning. Children first learn to understand concepts in a language and then use it verbally to express the concept. It is not uncommon for children to “code switch” when exposed to one language. This means that children will combine words from one language or another into one statement of dialogue.

Ideally learning more than one language should happen between birth and twelve years of age—the ideal period is to begin at birth and continue during the first 6 years.

There are so many advantages to being bilingual that all may not appear when children are young. Being bilingual allows children to also have an awareness that the world is not all the same, there is an appreciation for differences and understanding other points of view other than our own. It also will provide tremendous opportunities in children’s future—as they proceed into high school and colleges there are now obligations to learn another language—those that have that base already can advance further. In our future, the job market will require multi-lingual individuals. Finally it maintains the communication within families.
Child Care Provider Comments
Elizabeth Antonyan
Elizabeth Antonyan
Mother of two
When celebrating specific cultural holidays, one should explain to our children where traditions come from and why. Explaining the culture is important because it adds a certain meaning and pride that can spark a curiosity in the language and culture.
Suyapa Espinoza
Suyapa Espinoza
Cares for her niece and nephew
Children will never be confused as long as they are been taught at an early age because they’re small and their brain absorbs more at that age. They’re eager to learn and they’ll repeat anything you say. Continue talking to them in Spanish, enroll them in a bilingual program and have them do activities that are age-appropriate for them. For example, you can play Loteria, which is like a Spanish Bingo, but instead of numbers, there are characters in Spanish so that will teach them how to identify pictures and words in Spanish.
Joachim Agamba
Joachim Agamba
Father of two
When my first child was born, the doctor told us that if we wanted her to be bilingual, then either me or my wife should speak one language and the other would speak Kassem all the time. So at home, I speak English only and my wife speaks only Kassem to the kids. Sometimes she speaks English, but for the most part she speaks only Kassem. It’s a very conscious effort for one of us to only speak in Kassem to the kids, but I think it has paid off well.

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