Bilingual Learning

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Homeschool Blogging Carnival hosted by Lisa at The Squishable Baby and Keisha at Unschooling Momma. This month our participants are talking about Multiculturalism. ***    

Being bilingual (or even multilingual) is a life skill. As of the 2012 census, 155,374 of people in our state and 13,748,260 people in the US speak only Spanish.

Learning Spanish is an important part of our homeschooling cirriculum, except that I have the vocabulary of the three-year-old when I’m speaking Spanish, complete with all of the grammatical errors. So I do have some basis for beginning to teach my kids the language, although for the most part I’m learning right along with them.

Research on language learning shows the immersion learning is the best way to learn a new language. I learned the basics this way traveling in Peru and Central America, which is to say enough Spanish in Peru and Central America to get by in casual conversations with people I met. I could understand what they were saying, even though I’m sure they were dumbing it down for me. It was helpful for me that Peruvian Spanish has a relatively mild accent (compared with Mexican or Chilean Spanish). Immersion made learning so much faster than if I had started with classes or those language learning CDs. But now that I am at home, I’m back to the CD’s myself to try to brush up and expand my vocabulary.

While experience helps, it’s not necessary to know the language. You can learn right along with your kids.

Since it’s not possible for us to do full immersion at home, here’s a list of strategies that you can adopt to simulate the immersion experience.


1.       Read.

 Find some good bilingual books, and some books that are just in Spanish. This is a great way to build vocabulary for you and your kids. Picture books are the best, for any age since you can learn a lot of new words without having to look them up.

You can also pick up some grown-up reads for yourself. A novel you are familiar with translated into Spanish is a good way to start. Even something at a lower level like Charlotte’s web can be a great way to build fluency when you’re not practicing face to face. I loved Isabel Allende’s Island Beneath the Sea and Isla Bajo del Mar.



2.       Listen to stories.

Familiar stories can be helpful since it’s easier to figure out some of the main words from the context. We’ve probably listened to The Three Little Pigs, or Los Tres Cerditos, about 100 times. Don't be afraid to listen to these on repeat.


3.       Sing.

Singing in another language is a great way to learn. Find a song that you like and listen to it enough, before you know it you’ll have it stuck in your head and you’ll be singing all the words. Probably like a toddler would sing words to an English song at first all misprounounced with the words switched around. But you’ll get better with time. Your kids will too.

My favorite song in Spanish is Pa Mayte by Carlos Vives.


4.       Speak simple phrases with each other throughout the day.

“¿Quieres un pl├ítano?” Use phrases that can be understood easily within the context of the moment. Your child will understand that you’re asking if they want a banana as you ask with the fruit in your outstretched hand.


5.       Refer to objects in Spanish.


Before you’re ready to use simple phrases, you can practice using the Spanish word for single objects. Make a game out of it. Who can find five things that they can name in the room? Or play with colors. Say “roja” and have your child go touch something red. 



6.       Use Spanish and English word labels on objects around the house.

All you need is a few index cards, markers, and clear tape. Or simplify by using masking tape, but in my experience it doesn’t stick as well. (When it’s time to remove sticker residue, rub it down with oil first, then use very soapy water. Razor blades work well on flat surfaces too.)


7.       Sing the Spanish Alphabet song.

There are a few Spanish Alphabet songs out there, this one is designed for English speakers because it includes the rr that is not normally part of the Spanish alphabet. It’s call and response style. It’s the one I like the most.




8.       Count and do arithmetic in Spanish and English.


9.       Watch movies.

We don't do a lot of this since my kids don't watch videos (yet), so I don't have specific recommendations for kids. But as for grownup recommendations, Pan’s Labyrinth is my favorite.


10.   Practice your skills with simple conversations.


Go out to dinner at a family-owned restaurant or shop at a local tienda where you know folks speak Spanish. Be polite. Explain that you’re trying to learn Spanish and ask if they would they be willing to practice with you. Be genuine and don't expect people to want to talk to you just because you’re excited about learning their language. You also shouldn't assume that someone speaks, or doesn’t speak, Spanish from how they look. Don't let your enthusiasm cloud your normal social intelligence. Think of it as a way to make new friends.


11.   Volunteer.


Consider volunteering with local groups that advocate for immigration rights or provide English language tutoring.


Our Favorite Books

We try to look for books that are written by Latino Authors that are reflective of cultures in different countries and of Spanish speaking families in the US doing everyday things. Some books are favorites originally in English that have been translated.


  • Gracias Thanks by Pat Mora

I like that this is a book about gratitude. “Gracias” is an important word to know.


  • Fire Fuego Brave Bomberos by Susan Middleton Elya

This book is Chobie’s favorite. Most bilingual books that we’ve come across have the whole text in both English and Spanish, but this one mixes both languages within a single text. It’s a rhyming book that is surprisingly fun to read.


  • Sali de Paseo by Sue Williams


This book is available as a board book and is a good one for young children. I like reading it with Bee.

  • Nochecita by Yuyi Morales

Written in Spanish, this is a sweet story with beautiful pictures that will keep your kids interested even before they fully comprehend the words of the story.


  • Let’s Eat!/A Comer by Pat Mora


This is another pretty simple bilingual book that is good for preschoolers. It is full of visual cues from the illustrations that help build Spanish vocabulary.
  • Mis Colores Mi Mundo by Maya Christina Gonzales


This book is my favorite of all the ones listed here. The illustrations are enchanting.


  • Huevos Verdes Con Hamon by Dr. Suess


Green Eggs and Ham in Spanish. It is really fun to read Dr. Suess in Spanish.


Closing Thoughts


The language that we speak and think in literally shapes our perceptions of reality when we are in the beta brain wave state, which as adults is where we spend most of our waking hours. Children are often in slower states associated with activities like meditation, prayer, or viewing art and natural surroundings in a relaxed way. When we shift brainwave states our perception of the world changes with our brainwaves. (Two slower states also exist, delta and theta, associated with dreams and trance states).  When our children grow up they will be spending more and more time in the beta state as well. Switching languages is a way of switching lenses of perception in the beta state, which is a pretty mind blowing skill.


When we are trying to build a multicultural world that is about relationship, rather than tokenizing and appropriation, this is really a powerful skill.


Find out how many people speak just Spanish in your state.
For more information about brainwaves and child development...

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  1. WOW WOW WOW. What a fantastic post Lydia! We are learning Spanish, and I have fewer skills than you. These are all fantastic ideas!

    We are learning colors and numbers now, so I thought about playing candyland (a game with only colors and numbers). Do you think that would work?

    I love the idea with the labels. Totally pinning this wonderful post! thanks so much for participating in the carnival with us. I love this post!

  2. Thanks so much Lisa. And double thanks for putting the Homeschooling Carnival together!

    The Candyland idea is brilliant. Playing bilingual games should be #12 on this list.


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