Raising a Bilingual Baby

Fact: the earlier a child learns another language, the better. In addition to little kids being sponges, they have fewer inhibitions and are far less worried about pronunciation and verb tenses than older kids are. They learn faster and are less afraid to make mistakes.

I didn’t take Spanish until 9th grade and I truly regret not having been immersed in the language sooner. This is why it’s been really important to both of us to raise Maya bilingual from the start.

The only problem is, we have no idea how it’s supposed to be done — we’re just trying to speak to her in both languages as much as we can: Daddy in Spanish (and English); Mommy in English. All we can do is hope we don’t screw up our child as we speak to her in two languages. I have hope: Luis turned out OK and he speaks three languages — but he only spoke Spanish at home and English and German at school (he graduated from the German School in San Salvador).

What’s hard is in our nearly 11 years together, we’ve only ever spoken English together — even when I lived in El Salvador, it was just more natural for us to speak English. We met here in the U.S., speaking English. It doesn’t feel right to speak Spanish — and we’ve tried. We’veΒ  just always reverted back to English for ease.

Which means my Spanish pretty much sucks right now because the only practice I get is when his mom comes to visit or when we visit family in El Salvador. That said, I’m hoping my Spanish will improve as Maya gets older and absorbs more and more of Luis’s native language.

Which brings me to this exciting news: This weekend, Maya said her first Spanish word!

It wasn’t the word we assumed it would be (“hola,” a word we use all the time) but rather “papa” — as in, potato. I thought Luis was kidding with me when he told me, but he was totally serious: she showed me the bag of potatoes under the island in the kitchen and said, “papa” clear as day, pointing at them.

This is excellent news because on Thursday, we head to Mexico City for a family wedding and it’s my hope that she comes back with one more Spanish word πŸ™‚ Perhaps we’ll get an “hola”? πŸ™‚

Thing is, I don’t know how this whole bilingual baby business is going to go … will she get terribly confused? Will it cause a language delay (I’ve heard it can with bilingual children; we’d cross that bridge if we came to it). Or will she be able to handle learning both with ease? I know it can be done but sometimes I worry that being spoken to in both languages/asked to communicate in both might stump her — especially now when she is at the beginning stages of verbal communication.

Then again, I should have faith in her. Luis is speaking to her more and more as the days go by and we have lots of Spanish books we read to her (including some that are the same in both languages). Her comprehension of what we’re saying seems good. She repeated “agua” in the pool on Saturday (though I wouldn’t necessarily say she knows what it means quite yet). She knows how to point to her eyes, hair, nose, ears, mouth and tongue in Spanish. She understands, “Venga” (come here) and “Un beso para Daddy/Mommy?” (A kiss for DaddyMommy?) and “Abre la boca” (open your mouth). And if you ask her “Cinco?” she shows you her open palm with five fingers.

She is definitely learning/absorbing but my fear is that she might end up confusing her English words and Spanish words, or only knowing one version of a word. I don’t want her speaking Spanglish!!

So I am asking you, the blogosphere and my readers for help. We are open to learning from people who have been there/done that. We want to know — how do you not confuse the hell out of a toddler just learning to talk? Do you have one parent repeat the word in one language and the other in the other language? Do you speak one language at home and another at school? What’s the best way for a child to learn?

I know there’s no right answer and what works with you might not be what works for someone else, but we are willing to listen to any advice.

How about you? Were you raised in a bilingual home? What worked for you? Are you raising your kids to be bilingual? Any tips welcome!

ETA: Loved watching Bethenny last night; she took Bryn to Spanish class πŸ™‚


6 thoughts on “Raising a Bilingual Baby

  1. You will not mess her up. Keep it up! Say the word in Spanish and English. Just make sure you say both over and over. Its best to learn them now than when she’s older. πŸ™‚ You will not cause delays.

  2. Hey there! This is something I know a little about – We are raising H to be bilingual in German and English.

    I speak ONLY English to him, he gets German everywhere else (daycare, etc.) since we live in Germany.

    He completely understands me, BUT he speaks almost only German unless prompted. DH started out only speaking German to him, but is now starting to speak English to him a bit as well (DH is German but his English is 99% perfect) – we are still trying to figure that one out.

    As for his language skills, they are actually MORE advanced than most of the kids his age – his daycare teachers are amazed at how well he speaks! (He just turned 2 and is speaking at nearly a 3-year-old level). The potential delay for some bilingual kids is really only short-term – kids have e.g. 90 words that they know so if they are fully bilingual then 45 would be in one language and 45 in the other.

    I am hoping that H will eventually speak more English – but am trying not to stress too much about it, if and when we move back to the states I am sure he will pick it up then.

    If you want my recommendation – Have L speak ONLY Spanish with Maya. That will at least get her comprehension up so that when she is a bit older she can easily pick up the speaking.

    The “best” method IMHO is to have the foreign language (i.e. the one that isn’t spoken in the surrounding community) spoken by everyone at home but that is not always possible. Especially since the other “rule” is that the parent should only speak the foreign language if he or she is fluent.

    It isn’t easy! Good luck!

    1. I was hoping you’d have a comment, Yas! Thank you so much! That is wonderful about H speaking so fluently and so well! You go! πŸ™‚

      I think that is totally a good idea–to have L speak exclusively in Spanish with her. She understands so much, even if she can’t verbalize all of what she knows yet (in both languages, her comprehension is awesome). This way she’ll know to speak to Daddy in Spanish and Mommy in English. I wouldn’t be able to speak to her exclusively in Spanish myself, so I think that’s the best we can do. Plus, at school it’s English only though they are starting a Spanish curriculum next fall – can I say how much I heart our daycare?! πŸ™‚

      Thanks so much — and there is nothing cuter than a bilingual babe πŸ™‚

  3. I would totally encourage your efforts! My husb and I are bringing up our son (14 months) in English (our language of communication and the dominant environmental language), German (my husband’s mother tongue) and Chinese (my MT which is really rusty from lack of use). Julien doesn’t speak proper words yet but he understands LOADS in all 3 languages. It’s been worth it, and loads of fun, but we’re aware it’s an uphill task to do 100% OPOL. I would recommend getting Maya more Spanish-speaking exposure with playgroups or other adults who can speak it to her. Don’t worry about sucking at Spanish, I had to look up the words “whale”, “dolphin” and “rhino” the other day in Chinese cos I was stumped. Lots of books with pictures helps – you can do them in both languages. Jury is out on whether babies start speaker later if exposed to many languages, but it’s a fact that they won’t get confused. Check out Patricia Kuhl’s work, she shows how ALL babies can tell the different sounds of all the world’s languages between 7 and 11 months. Then they lose this ability. Be prepared for mixing languages when they get older, this can’t be helped but it’s not a bad thing. It depends on who she speaks to (whether they are bilingual as well) and the dominant language she is immersed in. Best of luck and happy experimenting!

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