If you joined me with my kids today, you’d hear some catchy Spanish songs like “Veo Veo” or “Chocolalala” that would undoubtedly get stuck in your head. We’d chat together in Spanish as we drew or wrote stories, played in the backyard, and made dinner. You’d definitely listen to some new Spanish books – maybe even a few times in a row. It’s a Spanish day at our house!
Making a family language plan is an important step for bilingual or multilingual parents. There are many excellent ways to raise children with multiple languages. Read about four common bilingual parenting strategies in this post. Each strategy has value! Teaching a child a new language is an invaluable gift.
Each family is different, with unique language backgrounds, and with different family and community language support. In my experience working with bilingual families as an educator and through Bilingual Balance, a bilingual parenting plan isn’t to be selected from a buffet of options. On the contrary, each family must find and thoughtfully plan the best strategy for them given their family and language capabilities.
I often get asked about how we are raising bilingual kids – especially because I am a non-native speaker, and my husband doesn’t know Spanish! Today I’m opening up to share our unique family language plan as well as how it has evolved through the years. My hope is that it can inspire you to find and own your strategy and the right balance for you and your kids.
Our family language structure
My husband and I were both raised in monolingual English-speaking homes in a small town in Iowa. When we finally had the opportunity to take language classes in high school, I absolutely fell in love with Spanish! While my husband decided to take a few years of German, that was the extent of his second language learning. However, I went on to study Spanish and education and become a dual language teacher – teaching both Spanish and English language learners all content areas in elementary classrooms.
I knew when we had children I wanted to share my passion for Spanish with them – and to start as early as possible. Luckily, my husband was on board, even though he couldn’t help teach them Spanish. With bilingual parenting completely new to me, I devoured bilingual parenting books trying to learn as much as I could. We also knew that we had virtually no language support system – family or friends who could use Spanish with our kids. For this reason, I knew from the beginning that teaching our kids Spanish would be very much on my shoulders – and that finding a bilingual school program for them to attend (and for me to teach at someday) would be imperative.
When our first child was born (almost nine years ago!), we started with a Time & Place strategy. While a specific place was not part of our plan, I chose the time for Spanish in our week. I set a schedule for English days and Spanish days. I used Spanish with our son Monday through Friday, and then we used English together as a family on the weekends. Unfortunately, I taught full-time and we were unable to find Spanish childcare – meaning a large part of his day was in English.
When we had our second child a few years later, I started staying at home. I realized that my son’s language skills in English were progressing much faster than in Spanish, and that I had an opportunity to increase his Spanish language input. I was also quickly realizing the amazing language juggle that is bilingual parenting – and coming to see that it was okay to adjust and keep trying to balance the two languages the best I could.
Related post: Creating a Family Language Plan: Find Your Balance
Adaptations over the years
Therefore, for about a year we dove into a different bilingual parenting strategy – One Parent, One Language. My husband used all English with our kids, and I used all Spanish with them. Of course, I still spoke to my husband in English. And while our kids’ Spanish started progressing better, I came to several important realizations.
First, it was very difficult navigating interaction outside our home. Again, our families and most of our friends only spoke English. In our small community, any library story time, toddler music class, or other activity was in English. It was extremly difficult trying to stay in Spanish when we left home.
Next, I was getting emotionally drained parenting in my second language. I missed bonding with my kids in English, reading them children’s books and singing them lullabies from my own childhood. I wanted to teach them English nursery rhymes and connect with them in my native language. And as a full-time mom with my kids for long days alone (my husband was in his medical residency our first four years of parenting), I was mentally and emotionally exhausted always using my second language.
I transitioned back to our Time & Place schedule of Spanish/English days during our week. I’ve adjusted it a few times over the years – using between three and five Spanish days during our week – but each Spanish day is the same. I greet our kids in Spanish in the morning – I often use a sweet Spanish good morning song (although it’s lost its appeal with my older two). I use Spanish consistently and try hard to make our interaction positive as I encourage them to use it back with me. My kids know that we will listen to Spanish music or podcasts in the car and at home. If they choose to use their tablets or watch a TV show, it will be in Spanish. We read wonderful, interactive Spanish books together. In either language, we are learning and having fun in natural, meaningful ways!
When we added our third child, our oldest was almost ready for kindergarten. We had moved to a small community in Minnesota where my husband took a new position. It’s worth mentioning here that as he searched for a job, I searched high and low for bilingual schools in the surrounding areas. I researched, applied for enrollment, and prepared to drive long distances to get to a bilingual school. Of course, bilingual school programs don’t exist everywhere, and many families don’t have the opportunity to move where they choose – or drive to school. We were lucky enough that our son was selected (through a lottery) for a local public school’s Spanish program. Having school support to achieve our goals of raising bilingual and biliterate children has been invaluable these last few years.
Related post: Why Should I Choose Bilingual Education for my Child?
A few final reflections on why this daily schedule has been the right bilingual parenting choice for us. I realize that it works well because I am the person spending the most time with our children – caring for them as little ones, supplementing their learning as they went (or will go) to English preschools, and interacting with them before and after elementary school. Second, my husband continues to work long days so our switch in the evenings to English is a small part of the kids’ day. Furthermore, the strategy allows me to use a large quantity of Spanish with our kids. Yet I can still speak in my native language at times with my family. Lastly, choosing a Spanish elementary school program has been an immense support for our kids’ language learning and my bilingual parenting plan.
Teaching our kids Spanish has had to become a bit of an obsession of mine over the last decade. And while I still sometimes feel like an island with their language abilities completely my responsibility, I continue to add new Spanish resources and outside language support to my parenting repertoire. Bilingual parenting has been a long journey of planning, implementing, and adjusting the balance of Spanish and English I use to maximize our children’s language skills and learning. It’s why I named my blog “Bilingual Balance!”
Tips for using this strategy
- Make a clear and consistent plan
- Choose the time and place that works for you and your children
- Commit to using the language at hand
- Think through a typical week in your child’s life
- Make sure the time spent in the target language aligns with your goals – get a clear picture of how much exposure the child receives in both languages
- Use minority language resources in the home to help you switch languages (music, books, technology…)
- Seek out support resources to add in more language time (school, childcare, online classes, in-person classes, playdates…)
- Try not to compare your unique family’s strategy to other families
If you’re raising bilingual kids, I’d love to hear which strategy you use and how it works for your family! I hope sharing my unique journey in this way encourages you to own your strategy and create the right plan for you and your kids. Connect with Bilingual Balance on Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.
Find your balance,