Sunday, May 30, 2010

#1 Why we are successful: Diego's first language is Spanish

A friend and fellow teacher asked me the other day how we have been so successful raising our sons to be bilingual. This friend is from the Dominican Republic and his wife is from Peru and he will readily admit that they have not succeeded in raising bilingual children. Both of their children, who are now in elementary school, understand quite a bit of Spanish but will not speak a word of it. My child, Diego, on the other hand, has as big of a vocabulary and speaks with the fluency of any other native Spanish-speaking child.

This has been no small feat and certainly didn't happen on accident. My first language was English and although my husband learned Spanish first, English took over as he went through the school system in the U.S. My husband's family does speak Spanish but since they do not live close, we have had to rely on ourselves to ensure that the boys learn Spanish.

Now that we are four years into this bilingual journey, I would like to reflect on why we have been successful for myself and hopefully to help anyone else who is going through this difficult but rewarding process. I am going to break this into several posts because I believe that there are several reasons.

#1 Why we have been successful: Diego's first language is Spanish.

There are several different ways to balance multiple languages within a home. The two most popular seem to be OPOL (One Parent, One Language) and ML@H (Minority Language at Home.) OPOL is where one parent speaks, for example, English to the child and the other parent speaks Spanish. With ML@H, as the name implies, the minority language is always spoken within the family and the majority language (English) is learned from the environment.

Our particular method is closest to ML@H but we went a step further to ensure that Diego was surrounded by the Spanish outside of the home also. From the time he was born we always looked for Spanish-speaking babysitters, watch television in Spanish, listened to music in Spanish, and even found a Spanish immersion preschool for him to attend. In a sense, until he was three, he was immersed in Spanish. This, of course, caused some problems. Several family members were not pleased that my son could not speak English. Remember that no one on my side of the family speaks Spanish. And surprisingly, several members of my husband's family voiced their disapproval saying that I would be putting him behind all of the other students when he entered school. I will actually have to write a separate post about how I dealt (and still deal) will the negative reactions from friends and family. I have plenty examples.

I have never had any doubt that Diego would learn to speak English. Living in the United States and dealing day to day with the world outside of our home make it a certainty. Diego's big breakthrough with English came a month after his third birthday when he made friends with a little boy who just moved in down the street. Within a month of playing with this little boy, he was forming complete sentences in English. Now a year later, I would say that while Diego's strongest language is most certainly Spanish, his English is catching up fast. I predict that by the time he is six that he will be more or less equally fluent in both languages.

I have been told by many that our method is too extreme. And I will admit that a few times when Diego was two, I felt terrible when we would go to a playgroup and Diego would not be able to communicate with the other children. It is much easier to write this post looking back now knowing that we are being so successful. It takes a strong stomach and a lot of determination but it has worked for us.


  1. I wish I could go back and did as you. I have some neighbors that did the same as you and your husband and all four kids are fully bilingual. I am working hard now at trying to get my kids to be bilingual but it is much harder when they are bigger. Not impossible but harder. I have the hardest time sticking to only speaking Spanish. I get thrown off by my kids or husband speaking English. Did this ever happen to you?

  2. Yes, we're playing catch up, too. Our oldest understands well and can speak just a little. Our middle one is resistant to learning spanish, and the baby, we're trying to do it right this time. I think you did the right thing, even with the criticism. I'm sure it was hard.
    We struggle with speaking spanish only now, even though it was all we spoke when we first met.
    But it's still a priority for me, so I'm not giving up. Thanks for your blog and all your ideas.

  3. We have been doing the OPOL in our home since birth. I know Psychology says that the neural pathways for language are being formed during early childhood. I would love to have done the minority language at home. Although I am also Mexican, I am NOT fluent in Spanish so I mostly speak to her in English. That's because first and foremost I want her to have a really good model of language and I know that I can use more expressive language and vocabulary in English. My husband and all of his family speak to my daughter in Spanish and we spend a lot of time with them. When she first started talking, it was 90 percent English, now she is almost 2 and I would say that it is 75 percent English but her comprehension seems to be equal in both languages.

  4. I've been very impressed with your hard work. My friend here who is bilingual did one parent one language, and it's still a struggle sometimes.

  5. I'm sorry that you have had negative reactions to teaching your child Spanish. I think it is a beautiful gift! Since Spanish is spoke on both sides of our family, we haven't got negative reactions from family, but it happened once from a stranger! We were at a Burger King and my husband was speaking to my daughter in Spanish and an older lady walked up to him and unkindly said, "you need to teach her English!".

  6. I think this is the best way to achieve truly bilingual children. I took the easy road and just introduce my kids to French here and there. I have a friend who used your approach, though, with German. Her kids had the same play group problem at age 2, but now they speak both languages perfectly and will have that benefit for life!

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  8. I find negative attitudes about my son speaking Spanish come exclusively from the Hispanic side of the family. It's weird, me being the big cheerleader and it isn't even my side. But I'm the mom and it's my responsibility, whatever anyone thinks, to do what is REALLY best. I want my son not only speaking the languages, but also feeling proud about his heritage -- both sides. He's going to NEED that positive strength inside himself by the time he gets to high school. Make that middle school.

  9. I absolutely admire what you have done and achieved. It's not easy to go against the "well meaning advisors". I feel terrible that our daughter doesn't have a gift of being trilingual that she could have had, but in our home OPOL didn't work out since my husband kept slipping back into English. Now we are playing serious catch-up with German and just dipping a toe into Russian.

  10. We're doing OPOL (English-Dutch, in the UK) but I really wish we could find more ways to include Dutch in our family life - like you mention having babysitters who speak the language and so on. Whilst the Dutch side of the family are thrilled our kids speak Dutch, they are also very picky - they seem to expect "perfect" Dutch


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