Raising a bilingual child, even if you’re bilingual, is simply hard. Even harder if you’re in a multicultural marriage, where one of your speaks 2 languages, and the other only speaks 1. For example, someone who speaks English only, and someone who speaks English and Spanish. We’ve met many parents who live in these households, and many times, their kids do not speak a second language. That’s how it was for my mother. My grandparents came from Mexico, and wanted to integrate, so once they learned English, they started speaking it to the kids, even at home, since they were nervous that the kids might have an accent or not sound like native speakers (which isn’t possible, by the way – my aunts and uncles were attending English-speaking schools).
So imagine now that you only speak 1 language. How do you help your child become bilingual if you yourself cannot give them a second language?
While challenging, it’s not impossible to give them a level of confidence and basic fluency in a second language, if you follow our plan. This plan takes a little effort every day or every week, and some planning on how to get in front of native speakers. No, we’re not asking you to move to Mexico or Spain, but we are asking you to get out of your comfort zone.
The reality of raising a bilingual child (if you do not speak the language) is that your child will need 600+ hours of speaking practice to have a very good level (fluent), 400 hours of speaking practice to have a good level (set up for success to have a bilingual job in the future), and 300 hours to have a basic level of fluency. So group classes will only give a fraction of this time. It’s quite challenging to get 600 hours of speaking in a group class. Let’s do the math.
Your child takes 2 hours of Spanish in a group of 15 kids every week during the school year. That’s approximately 30 weeks, or 60 hours. In those 60 hours, other children have to talk, and the students will listen a lot. This is essential, seeing as the kids need to hear a lot before they get confident speaking and understanding. In this year of 60 hours, they will likely speak 5 minutes in each class, which gives 5 X 60 classes. A total of 300 minutes of speaking, or about 5 hours. Now, group classes are great, less expensive, and a great way to learn vocabulary, listening skills (which takes so much time), and much more. They are very worth it, but you’ll need to do more if you want your child to be bilingual. Speaking comes last (just like when they learned their first language), so you’ll need to stick with it to see the magic happen.
Parents constantly ask us, “Will my child be bilingual after this semester with 1 hour a week for 15 weeks?” If it were that easy, we would all speak 10 languages, right? We always tell parents, it will take at least 300 hours of your child speaking to have a truly good level. Even 200 hours is a high beginner level, very respectable, and way more than most kids know. So if you’re doing a group class, stick with it, and you’ll get a lot of needed hours, for less money.
Travel to get your child Fluent (out of USA)
Consider planning some vacations around bilingual activities. You can travel to Mexico, Spain, Costa Rica, Argentina, and a variety of other beautiful countries for your vacation. When you’re planning, start to research what kids classes are in the city where you will be. Is there an art class, a soccer camp, tennis lessons, robotics classes, or something else that interests your child?
It’s best to choose an activity that your child already has knowledge of. Remember, your child will be hearing instructions in the new language, so it’s best that it’s not a completely new activity. For example, if your child has never played chess, do not sign up for chess club that week. How confusing! But if your child has been taking tennis lessons in English, then see if there are some tennis lessons in Spanish at the resort or city where you’ll be staying.
For me personally, I like to look up art classes while I am traveling. In this way, I can watch the teacher do something, and I do not have to solely rely on my understanding. If I get lost, I have a visual. But I am also still learning new vocabulary, and my ears are being tuned to the sounds of the language.
Language Immersion Camps (in the USA)
Some of our clients send their older children (10+) to Spanish immersion programs in the United States. There are camps for learning languages, and the kids do not have to leave the country. In these camps, only Spanish is spoken. The only downside I see is that kids will not speak to each other in Spanish, if everyone has the ability to speak English, so these camps can be limited in how much immersion they can give. That’s why I prefer taking classes in the country.
Take Local Classes in the Target Language – but not Language Classes!
If your goal is for your child to learn Spanish, do some digging into classes in the Hispanic neighborhoods around your city. There will likely be tons of kids camps, with counselors who speak in Spanish, because that is the common language in the community. This would allow your child to be around kids that speak 2 languages, but also be immersed when the teachers are talking, because many of the kids already speak Spanish. Remember, learning a new language is about being as close to the language as possible for as much time as possible.
Many people living in border towns around the world know a lot about the other country’s language, simply due to proximity. So, be close the language and learn more from it.
Also, your child would make friends that speak Spanish. Then, your child might be invited to birthday parties and playdates. This is a great way to be immersed, in social situations, and more. You can truly make the new language a part of your everyday life if you surround yourself with people who speak the language. This might be more challenging if you are in a small town, as larger cities will have more international communities.
Obviously, if you have the option to sign up for dual language at your kid’s school, definitely do it. The earlier, the better. Of course, this doesn’t get your children all the way there, but by far, it will be the easiest way to get your child to be immersed in the language for many hours a day. Besides moving to the country, this is the best option. Even though your children will be in a class with some native speakers, there will be a lot of English speakers as well. For the teacher, it is unrealistic to get a group of 30 English-speaking children to speak Spanish when they don’t know Spanish yet, but it’s better than nothing, and you can’t beat how many hours they will be listening to Spanish. But do not rely on this to get your child fluent speaking without adding on one-on-one speaking practice with someone regularly: babysitter, tutor, online classes with very small group, trips to Spanish-speaking countries, camps, etc.
Small Group Immersion Classes (evenings and weekends)
In most major cities, there will be after school or weekend small group classes for getting fluent and immersing in the language, and typically the setting is relaxed and fun! In the after school classes, the teachers know that the kids have already had a long day at school, so they center the classes around games, songs, fun videos, dancing and choreography, and art activities with instructions in the target language. Of course, this depends on the school and the program. So ask if you can sit in on a class before signing up, as you want your children to have a positive feeling towards the language, so focus on fun classes after school and on the weekends.
TV and Music
Netflix and Youtube are chock-full of absolutely adorable, fun, slow-talking cartoons for kids. Remember, kids don’t learn to speak a new language from watching TV alone, but this is a great way to learn some new vocabulary, remember recently learned vocabulary, and in general, have another way to get in more hours of time with the language. So feel free to get addicted to a TV show and watch a few episodes on the weekends without guilt! Here’s a link to a few of my favorite for a few languages:
For music, you can choose any appropriate songs for your child’s age. Use the time in the car to sing the songs together. I suggest learning them in advance, so you can understand the lyrics, and then, if your child has a question, you can respond about the meaning (but if your child is younger, they likely won’t ask. They just sing and enjoy, improving their native accent).
If you have the means, try to do at least 1 hour of private classes a week, 2 or more is preferred. This talk-time is so essential for speaking progress. You can take classes in person with someone local, but this will likely run you $60 per hour, even if you’re traveling to the language school for private lessons, it will be a similar hourly rate. If you can’t swing that, then do 2 hours a week online for the same amount. If your child is 5 or 6, then try for 30-minute classes 4 days a week, right after school, or right in the morning. It’s not like a serious class, it’s fun conversation, like playing in the target language. It should not be stressful. The goal is just to get conversation practice. This is just like the practice you gave your children when they were learning their first language. If your child is 7 or older, they can do longer classes of 45 minutes or more. This time is the most essential for your child getting fluent.
Find a Local Babysitter or Au Pair
If you want to have a night out while your child gets fluent, try hiring a local babysitter that speaks the language as a native. This is a low cost, and your child will have fun playing in their second language. Yet, remember, the babysitter is not a professional instructor, and quite possibly, the babysitter will slip into English again, since the babysitter will not be skilled in second language acquisition. This is still a solid, low-cost option.
You could also get an au pair. Depending on the language, au pairs cost around $25,000 per year, and you’ll need to often supply living quarters as well. You’ll have ilve-in daycare and also get your child fluent. Yes, it’s worth it to start from week 1 of their lives. That is when your child starts learning language: listening, word order, sounds, and simple vocabulary. Actually, they start learning in the womb, so start as soon as they are born. You can transition from au pair at ages 0 to 3, then sign up for dual language and immersion classes starting at age 3. So while it might be costly the first two years, you’ll be able to let go of the au pair fairly quickly, and move to less expensive options, like small group classes.
Obviously, an au pair for a few years is not an option for most of us. Personally, I might be able to swing the first year, but not after that.
My personal goal is to speak as much Spanish in the home as possible. Then, try to spend at least a month in Mexico per year, putting my child in a local daycare center. I work from home, so I’ll likely set up shop across the street from the daycare center, at a cafe, working away while my child gets fluent.
Whatever way or ways you choose to raise a bilingual child, start as soon as possible, even if it’s just a small step towards your goals.