Raising Bilingual Toddlers

Going from Spanish to English and back to Spanglish as I talk to friends is natural to me. Even before I became pregnant, I knew that the ability of swiftly going back and forth between two languages was something I wanted for my children as well.

I was born and raised in New York but with a Salvadoran mom and Dominican dad, was raised as Latina as can be. Argenis was born and raised in Puerto Rico before coming to NY at age 6, and is intensely proud of where he comes from. So for us, seeing more and more Hispanic kids growing up not knowing Spanish is a little sad. With that said, I am not judging you if your child is Latino and doesn’t know Spanish. I thought it would be so easy but like everything in motherhood, it’s much easier said than done.

Wanting Achilles and Jade to be able to communicate freely with their grandparents and extended family and teaching them to be proud of the roots that make them who they are is a big part of it for us. Also, the fact that they grow up having certain advantages in life doesn’t hurt. Here are a few things I've learned on our path to raising bilingual toddlers.

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OPOL to mlah

OPOL which means One Person, One Language is having each person consistently speak to the child in the same language and expecting the child to reply in that language. This seems to be the most popular method when raising a bilingual child and we kind of do this but not completely.

I basically only speak to Achilles and Jade in Spanish, Argenis is more 50/50 because he absentmindedly adds more English than I’d like. And when Argenis and I are speaking to each other 80% of our conversations are in English.

MLAH, which stands for Minority Language At Home, is what we’re trying to focus more on. Achilles and Jade are getting exposure to English every time we step out the door. In daycare, at the park, at the doctor’s office; and when they go to school it’s what they will be exposed to a great majority of the time.

Growing up, my dad made it a point to limit how much English my older brother spoke to me at home before I went to Kindergarten because he wanted to make sure I mastered both languages on a native level. I’m so happy he went out of his way to keep this rule at home because I was able to do just that and master both languages without even having to attend ESL (English as a Second Language) classes.

Argenis and I are taking a page out of our parents book and attempting to making Spanish our main language at home.

reduced vocabulary

There are only so many hours in any given day so a child who is learning two languages will initially have a smaller vocabulary in each than a child who is just exposed to one language, Dr. Hoff explains. The mixing of languages to complete sentences doesn’t indicate confusion, it’s actually a sign of language ability.

“Mami, I don’t want cama.” or “No raining. Vamos parque.” are the type of sentences Achilles forms all the time so I’m happy to know it’s perfectly normal to mix both languages. And don’t worry, once the child’s vocabulary develops and they obtain more exposure to each language, the mixing eventually goes away.

babies can differentiate languages

Can you believe that only after a few days of being born, infants can differentiate between many languages? Barbar Zurer Pearson, author of Raising a Bilingual Child explains that even with languages that are extremely similar like English and Dutch, by about 6 months of age, all babies can tell the two apart.

This one was a big concern for me because I had the misconception that they initially wouldn’t understand the difference between English and Spanish words. Good to know that babies really are little mini geniuses just waiting to learn all they can!

smarty pants

Learning a second language helps improve your memory and increases your attention span. The process of becoming bilingual, exercises your brain, challenges you to concentrate and boosts your problem solving skills.

Bilingual individuals have also been shown to be more logical and rational, have better decision-making skills and be more perceptive and aware of their surroundings.

This one is just a great plus to have thanks to knowing two languages fluently.

optimal age

It’s never too late if you decide you want to teach your child a second language but the optimal time, according to experts, seems to be from birth to 3 years - which is during the time that their mind is still open and flexible to learning two languages at the same time.

The next best time for learning a second language is when kids are between 4 and 7 years old, because they can build and learn to speak both languages like a native.

After puberty, studies show, new languages are stored in a separate area of the brain, so children have to translate or go through their native language as a path to the new language. So, of course, learning a second language is easier the younger we are but it doesn’t mean it’s not possible even after the optimal window has closed.

Are you bilingual? What would be your main motivation to raising your child bilingual?

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