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¿Habla español?

Learning Spanish can help your child explore her birth culture and identity. By Laurie R. Weaver, Ed.D.



By the time I became a parent, I had definite ideas about how I wanted to raise my Guatemalan-born child. One thing was sure: I wanted my daughter, Marisa, to be bilingual. As a former bilingual teacher, I knew that learning two languages would be valuable for any child. As an adoptive parent, I knew that learning Spanish would help Marisa develop a strong cultural identity. If you want your child to be bilingual, or to at least have a working knowledge of Spanish, here’s how to begin.

1 Know your goal. Start with a clear idea of what "learning Spanish" means to you. Ask yourself, Do you want your child to be exposed to the language in a general way, perhaps as a precursor to taking foreign language courses later on? If so, an after-school class once or twice a week is a good option. Do you want her to be orally fluent in Spanish—to speak it as well as she speaks English? For many children, two to three years of everyday exposure to Spanish will help them become orally fluent.

If you want your child to be able to read, write, and speak Spanish, then she will need to attend school in Spanish (for instance, in a two-way immersion program). Often, children need up to 10 years of study to reach grade-level fluency in a language.

2 Know your options. Many families use a method called "one person, one language," in which one parent speaks to the child exclusively in one language, while a second parent (or caregiver) uses another. Other families use the "one place, one language" approach. For example, a parent speaks to her child only in English at home, then enrolls her in a day care or preschool where the caregivers or teachers primarily speak Spanish. This way, the child is exposed to both languages every day.

There are also educational options. I wanted Marisa, now nine, to develop grade-level proficiency in English and Spanish, so I enrolled her in a two-way immersion program, starting in Kindergarten. In such programs, children from two different language backgrounds are educated in the classroom in both languages. (The Center for Applied Linguistics offers a directory of programs nationwide at www.cal.org/twi/directory.)

If this choice isn’t quite right for your child, you can enroll her in after-school Spanish classes; hire a local high school or college student to provide one-on-one tutoring in your home; or, more informally, look for library story hours presented in Spanish, bilingual music classes for kids, or play dates with children who speak Spanish.

3 Know your child. Finally, remember that your child’s interest in learning a foreign language may wax and wane over time. While she may embrace learning a second language in her early years, other activities may take precedence as she grows. If her interest flags, you might take a Spanish class together—either locally or abroad—or vacation in a place where you can practice Spanish.

Laurie R. Weaver, Ed.D., lives with her daughter, Marisa Lidia, in Houston. She is an associate professor of bilingual and multicultural studies at the University of Houston-Clear Lake.


Bilingual Fun
Try reading these simple books with your child.
  • De Colores and Other Latin-American Folk Songs for Children, by JosÉ-Luis Orozco (Puffin). Listen to the CD and read the song lyrics in English and Spanish.
  • Hairs/Pelitos, by Sandra Cisneros (Dragonfly). A story about the different types of hair in one family.
  • ¡Marimba! Animales from A to Z, by Pat Mora (Clarion Books). A cheerful book, with both Spanish and English animal names.
  • The Lost Ball/La Pelota Perdida, by Lynn Reiser (Rayo). A lively book about boys, sports, and dogs.

  • VOICES
    People who don’t know me often assume I speak Spanish. Normally, when this happens, I politely correct them or simply answer in English. But sometimes, I find it extremely irritating. Recently, I was out at a club near my college when a fellow student—who was white—came up to me and started speaking to me in broken Spanish. He assumed that I was Latina, and that I spoke Spanish. When I meet people, I do not presume to know them. I wish people would respect my privacy, too."
    —Marissa, age 20

    My birthparents were Mexican, but I was born in Queens, New York. Sometimes people think I speak Spanish. My friend’s babysitter says ‘Hola!’ to me, then starts talking in rapid Spanish. I say, ‘Uh, what?’ I want to learn Spanish some day, and when I grow up, I want to travel around the world. I want to go to Mexico to see what it’s like!"
    —Mateo, age 9

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