Teaching Your Child A Second Language


As I sit here and write this, I am sad that I have not done more to teach my children a second language.

With a last name of Ramirez, during pregnancy, many people asked if my husband and I would teach our children both English and Spanish.

My answer was always an enthusiastic "yes!". My husband is fluent in Spanish as a second language, and I always wanted my children to be bilingual. Heck, I want to be bilingual.

I spoke then about how teaching my children Spanish was the perfect way for me to learn the language once and for all.

However, I never made a plan, and so although we have loads of books in Spanish, my efforts have been inconsistent and lackluster.

And here I sit, with a 4 year-old and a 2 year-old who both know just a handful of Spanish phrases and vocabulary words.

I won't beat myself up too much over this, but I recently became reenergized with this dream and am ready to make it into a reality.

To help with creating a plan, I reached out to Lisa Pietropola who has a Masters of Art in Spanish, has spent the past 13 years teaching Spanish to children in public schools, and is mother to two adorable girls, Giuliana and Mariana (also ages 4 and 2).

She and her husband speak English in their household and so, just like many families, they must make an effort to teach their children a second language.

I spoke with Lisa about what she has done to teach her girls Spanish, and her story was a bit magical.

"With both of my girls, I started out by exposing them to Spanish music and books. The music was on their level (Sesame Street songs in Spanish), and the bedtime books that I chose were very simple (working on colors, objects, and numbers).

We did this from birth, and I continue to supplement these to make them age and developmentally appropriate as they grow.

Since Giuliana is now pre-school aged, we are trying to increase her motivation.

Giuliana loves, loves, loves Peppa Pig. As it happens, Peppa Pig speaks with a British accent and uses English phrases and vocabulary that are different from our American English dialect. This is perfect to demonstrate that even though it’s the same language, there are different sounds, vocab, rhythms of speech, etc.

As part of my job, I travel to Spain. Several trips ago, Giuliana gave me a little Peppa Pig figurine to take with me to keep me company. I took some fun pictures of Peppa “exploring” in Madrid.

When I got back, that little gesture of her seeing Peppa in Spain got Giuliana very interested in trying to learn Spanish. She started to ask me words and phrases on her own.

The next time I went to Spain, I took the whole Peppa Pig family with me and I set out on capturing photographs with the characters in front of iconic Spanish settings.

I took all the pictures and created a photo book that, essentially, leads Peppa through Spain.

I used these pictures to write a story that interplays both English and Spanish words, and in the story Peppa learns Spanish along the way.

It is similar to a Dora the Explorer book; however, whereas Giuliana shows no interest in Dora, she loves Peppa. She can relate to Peppa as a motivational force in her life and she is now associating Spanish with her favorite character.

It’s as if I have created a third linguistic caretaker in the household; my husband and I who speak to her in our common language (English), and Peppa who Guiliana now associates as someone who teaches her Spanish.

I honestly did not expect the kind of positive response I received from this, but as a teacher of almost 13 years now, this has yielded the best response of anything I have ever seen.

I truly believe the difference is that instead of working Giuliana through a series of flashcards and textbooks, I have authentically created a curiosity in my daughter. This curiosity can now be enhanced and worked on, but it first had to come from her."

This was not what I expected to hear, but it made me all tingly inside. How exciting to think about introducing our children to a reason (whether it is real or fictional) to actually want to learn a second language. In my house, Batman may soon be learning Spanish!

Q&A with Lisa, Spanish Teacher and Mom

While I had her at my disposal, I also asked Lisa some other burning questions about introducing a second language to young children.

1. What is the best age for your child to begin to learn a second language?

The ideal age to start exposing children to a second language is in infancy, as babies begin to learn the sounds and rhythms of a language from listening to the environment around them. This early exposure will help later on with developing an accent and understanding how words are put together to make sentences within that language.

2. What if we are getting a late start on learning the second language?

If your child is a toddler or of preschool age, it is a perfect time to present short phrases that mimic what they are learning in English ("red is rojo", "blue is azul").

Keep in mind that language is learned in a different part of the brain once a child goes through puberty. Before puberty, language is stored in the long-term memory part of the brain. After puberty, language is stored in more of a short-term capacity.

3. Does learning two languages confuse children?

Learning two languages will not confuse children. Children will learn to use each specific language based on the common language that is being spoken.

4. What benefits are there to learning two languages?

Children who know two or more languages learn how to process information better, do better on standardized testing, and are better able to decipher math problems.

Some studies show an increased musical ability, since reading music is a language all of its own and the brain can quickly adapt the "musical grammar".

Also, growing up in a family that supports and encourages second languages will foster a positive perspective on cultural awareness and inclusion.

There is a caveat, however.

If a child is learning two languages simultaneously (for example if mom is a native English speaker and dad is a native Spanish speaker, and mom and dad communicate in English, but dad speaks Spanish to the child), then the child's language skills in both languages will be slower to develop.

However, they will hit proficiency in late elementary school/early middle school.

This can be tough for parents who expect fluency right away.

Once these children hit proficiency, their languages skills excel and they are often higher in comprehension than their monolingual counterparts.

5. Can I teach my child a second language if I myself don't know that language?

Absolutely!

However, it is very difficult to get the child to a native-like fluency without the help of native speakers.

Children can be exposed to books, music, dvds, etc. which help to teach a second language, but that alone will not get the job done.

Children will discriminate between practicing language flashcards and having to use the language to communicate with a native speaker in an authentic way.

We are experiencing this with my daughter right now. She is 4 years old and knows her numbers, colors, short phrases, etc. in Spanish. However, her motivation to speak Spanish with me is lacking due to her reliance on our common language, English.

Ways to increase that motivation include making the language meaningful to her.

Well, as it turns out, my 2 year-old and 4 year-old have not yet reached puberty, so it seems that I have plenty of time to work a second language into the long-term memory portion of their brains.

It makes me super excited to think that, if we do it right, teaching a second language to a toddler can actually be a fun and magical experience.

Let the adventures of "Batman Aprende el Espanol" begin!

Lisa Pietropola, MA, BS

Lisa has a Master's of Art in Spanish, Bachelor's of Science in Secondary Education in Spanish, and is certified K-12 in Spanish and English as a Second Language. She lived in Madrid, Spain for 3 years while studying for her Master's through St Louis University of Madrid. She has since spent the past 13 years teaching Spanish to children in public schools.

Lisa is the mother of two girls, Giuliana (age 4) and Mariana (age 2) and has been married to her husband Daniel for 8 years.

Lisa says that she was first motivated to learn Spanish partially because of her love for Shakira! "Shakira was my version of Peppa Pig. I supplemented my own Spanish learning with Shakira songs back in the day! I feel like she and I could be friends!"

Katie Ramirez, RN, BSN, CLC

Born Happy, Owner and Coach

Katie Ramirez is a Registered Nurse and Certified Lactation Counselor. She has spent more than a decade serving patients at major university hospitals such as Vanderbilt University and Penn State University Medical Centers. Katie now spends her time supporting and empowering parents of babies and toddlers as owner and Coach for Born Happy.

Katie is the proud mother of two beautiful children, Roberto (age 6), and Veronica (age 4). She has a passion for health, wellness, and happy children, and believes that, with the necessary knowledge and support, all parents can live happy.

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