Welcome to Oruguitas a blog where Lelu founder, Ana Leyva, shares thoughts about raising bilingual kids. Please share and comment below!
It’s 2022 and I have some really good news for bilingual parents. Yes, good news! (Any parent living through this COVID surge and going into “junior year of COVID” will appreciate any bit of good news, am I right?!)
Bilingual parents are also just parents, meaning you are thinking about SO MANY OTHER THINGS in addition to bilingualism. I get it. That’s me, too. And yet, the habit of practicing lifelong bilingualism doesn’t take a break, even through global pandemics. So here’s the good news: there has never been a better time to raise bilingual children in the US than now. In just the last decade, the number of resources, programs, and other parents committing to bilingual education have all skyrocketed. We’re living through a revolution in how we as a society think about bilingualism and it’s a beautiful thing. Yes, there is still a lot of work to be done, but we must celebrate the progress to date and be grateful to be living in this moment: raising bilingual kids is more possible–and more important– than ever. And that’s why I’m so excited to be writing this article.
Each of the 22 points I’ll share here could be a standalone article (so stay tuned), but I'll try to keep things short and sweet here.
Without further ado, here are 22 things bilingual parents should keep in mind throughout 2022:
1. You can do this!
I know I just said that this is the best time in the history of our country to raise bilingual kids, but let me keep things super real: raising bilingual children in the US is still not for the faint of heart. Even with all the resources available and the progress that we’ve made, the US is one of the hardest places in the world to make a second language a priority because you’re in a sea of English predominance. You’re in the land of “everyone else needs to learn English” and “English is the language of the future” and “English is what we speak here.” Culturally there are still many Americans who don’t understand the value of bilingualism, and even when they do, it’s hard to create meaningful language acquisition experiences in a sea of so much English. So one of the things I know bilingual parents need to hear this year is that YOU CAN DO THIS. And it is worth it. And it is achievable! Whatever current you’re swimming against, it is worth it because of the countless opportunities and benefits bilingualism will yield for your children.
2. Help your kids develop a passion for bilingualism.
The old adage says give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime. This can be applied to bilingual education, too! If you teach your kids vocabulary and grammar rules that’s great, but teaching them LOVE their bilingualism is even better because then they themselves will seek out the vocabulary, grammar and practice they’ll need for a lifetime. This year, focus on helping your children develop a passion for their bilingualism.
This passion can develop in so many ways (see all the points below), but one thing I’ve had a lot of success with in our family is celebrating our bilingualism at every turn. For example, my kids are really into the Encanto movie right now, and we’ve gotten such a kick out of being able to listen to the songs in both Spanish and English. Together we’ve reflected about how fun it is to enjoy both and how interesting it is when things are translated in a way that surprises us. Through this authentic reflection and enjoyment, bilingualism becomes a cherished experience, a precious gift worth cultivating. This is the root of passion, and I’m excited for more of this in 2022.
3. Lead with their interests.
Another way to develop a passion for bilingualism is to fold it into other things your kids are already passionate about. You can ignite a lifelong love for bilingualism by approaching it on your kids’ terms! This year, make it a priority to make language interesting and fun for them. Talk about what your child wants to talk about!
4. Add routine.
One common strategy for supporting the development of bilingualism is called Time and Place. This strategy involves determining where and when you’ll use the target languages. For example, committing to speaking Spanish at dinnertime each day. There are many benefits to this approach, but the one I want to underline is how a strategy like this could help you develop good habits of practice, strong associations, and set your kids and family up for long term success. Adding a routine will help form the right habits of bilingualism and eventually that habit will go from being just something you do, to being who you are. At first, it may take you lots of time to successfully commit to the right routine, but if you stick with it long enough, eventually you won’t even think about doing it, it will just happen naturally because it is ingrained in you. This is how fluency with many skills comes about. Routine = reps and reps + time = mastery.
5. Fold it into unexpected places.
I recently bought my kids a book of chistes in Spanish and they’ve gotten so much enjoyment from it. I’ve caught my son reading it on his own, chuckling quietly, and even seen him take it with him on hikes. Seeing the success of the book, it occurred to me that one awesome way to get more language exposure is to surprise them with a joke or fun fact every once and a while. Try it! If you’re doing school pick up today, surprise them with a fun fact when you pick them up from school. Even better, if you regularly pick them up, make it a routine to have a fun joke or fact to share at pick up each day. Even something as simple as a new daily ¿Sabías que? will add excitement and make the learning come alive for your family. And add a whole lot to your kids' bilingualism over time!
6. Visual cues are your friend.
This year, make it a goal to put language up on the walls of your home, or on the dash in your car, or on your kids’ car windows. Your kids will ask questions about them, potentially leading to meaningful conversations. At a minimum, the written language will remind them how things are spelled or what sound letters make in the minority language. Then, switch the words up at whatever frequency makes sense. A little bit at a time throughout the year goes a long way. Put up written Spanish wherever you and your kids will be looking this year. At Lelu we offer awesome stickers for your kitchen and bathroom. If you want stickers for other places, reach out and let us know :-)
7. Encourage, encourage, encourage!
Your child should feel encouraged in their bilingualism journey. No one likes doing something they’re bad at and, if they’re being constantly corrected, your child may come to the conclusion that they are "not good" at the target language and then they can develop frustration around it. Rather than correcting your child harshly when they say something wrong, just repeat what they said as it should be.
Compare these two exchanges:
Do you feel the difference there? Raising bilingual children should NOT mean correcting them at every turn. I’ve been really encouraged to learn that encouragement is the blackboard on which you can write corrections. This year, seek to encourage your children 1000 times more than you correct them. Focus on growth-mindset encouragements like:
How will you be encouraging your kids this year? Share in the comments!
8. Focus on the big picture (and the things that matter for the long run).
Bilingualism is a long-term investment. Day to day it can feel scary, messy, complicated and unattainable. But to keep moving forward, I have to look up on those hard days and keep my eyes on the big picture. This one question has helped me regularly stay focused on the big picture: Why do you want to raise bilingual kids? There are countless benefits of bilingualism, but each of us has a personal why– what is it for YOU? Dig deep to reflect on why it’s so important to you to invest in bilingualism. Then, hold on to that throughout the year and anchor there when you feel discouraged.
My why is that I love being bilingual. I think it’s a joy and privilege to get to connect fluidly with two cultures, to understand music in Spanish, to appreciate the nuances in English better because I speak multiple languages. My bilingualism has been a gift to me, and I want my kids to be bilingual so they can experience the richness of this gift as well.
This why reminds me often that if I end up teaching my kids some Spanish, but they don’t love it in the end, then I will have failed. My first mission is to help my kids LOVE their bilingualism. Everything is secondary to that.
Understanding your why is critical. Come back to it throughout 2022!
9. Be the model of lifelong learning for your kids.
I just can’t emphasize enough how important it is to show your kids that bilingualism isn’t a box you check off one day, it’s a lifelong reality that requires ongoing investment. Your kids need to see you using your languages. Your kids need to see you enjoying it, seeking it out, sharing it. Your kids need to see this in YOU because they look up to you and more than doing what you say, they will end up doing what you do. How do you wish your kids lived out their bilingualism as adults? Model that for them now. Join them on the journey.
10. Consistency matters (repetition is key in language learning).
We all know that repetition is key for successful learning. A little consistency, with a routine, a weekly class, a weekly ritual can go a long way. Whatever you do, repeat it, be consistent.
11. You’ll see more improvement if you make it fun.
Do whatever it takes to keep things fun, light, exciting. Draw your kids in with joy. More of that in 2022!
12. Languages are relational.
I often say that any language program that doesn’t involve human interaction is misguided (sorry, language apps). Listen, I love a language app just as much as the next gal, but the whole purpose of language is to connect with other human beings. Successfully learning a language requires sharing that language with others. Make your language practice human-centered and relational this 2022, and you’ll see a huge improvement.
13. Surround yourself with community.
This is clearly related to the point above. Kids need to see other kids using the target language. They need to have a community to engage with, people to share the language with. I know we’ve all experienced change and distance with our in-person communities with the pandemic, but there are so many circles available to you online. At Lelu, we emphasize community with weekly builder classes, monthly sing-alongs, and expert calls. There are many ways to plug into community this 2022!
14. There is so much more support than before. Horray!
In 2022, you really have no excuse, mi gente! There are so many amazing tools and resources that have popped up in the last decade. What a changed landscape! There are new curriculums, more digital content, subscription boxes etc. If you’re looking for resources, they are likely out there. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, start it and join our community of bilingual entrepreneurs. :-)
15. Languages are tools, not slave drivers.
Did you know that languages are constantly changing? As societies use and adapt them, new words emerge, grammar rules change, etc. Languages serve us, not the other way around. This year, don’t stress your child out with language rules. Yes, there is a time and place for grammar, but so often stress and anxiety over getting everything perfect keep kids from actively practicing their bilingualism. Keep the focus on communication and understanding, not perfect grammar.
16. Leverage screen time.
Our family has a weekly movie night. This is the only time of the week my kids watch TV. Ninety nine percent of the time, we are watching in Spanish. We only watch in English when there isn’t a Spanish option available. So, for example, recently my son and I read Roal Dahl’s Matilda (translated in Spanish) together and then we chose to watch Matilda for movie night, but we couldn’t find it in Spanish, so we watched in English. But out of 52 movies we watched in 2021, we only watched 4 in English. We use our screen time as an aid to our bilingualism and it feels like such an easy win. We also enjoy listening to all the movie soundtracks in the car on commutes. Leverage screen (and commute) time this year, mi gente. It’s an easy win.
17. Make it active!
I’m a Latina, so you already know that my favorite way to move in the target language is to dance! Our family loves the Bicicleta song by Shakira and Carlos Vives, and, of course, other classics like Sopa de Caracol, etc. Learning with movement is proven to be stickier learning. Cabeza, hombros, rodillas, pies…. get up, dance, move while you learn! Another great way to do this is to take the language out with you on a hike, or on a bike ride, or to the beach. Get out there and pair language with movement!
18. It’s an investment. Budget for it.
Buying books in both languages, investing in programs and content…it can all add up very quickly. Going into 2022, consider making a budget specifically for resources of the minority language that you and your kids manage. Ask them each month what they want to spend the budget on (that agency will serve as its own motivation for keeping up with the minority language). Plan on spending and, when you do, invest in meaningful resources that will move the needle for your kids. It’s a worthwhile investment that will pay off in spades.
19. You can pivot along the way, find what works for you!
It’s OK to try things and not like them. It’s OK to try things, like them, and outgrow them. If at any point throughout the year you find yourself in a slump or discouraged, you can change things up! We don’t yet know what the coming months will bring us, so it’s 100% OK to adapt along the way. Make a plan now. Make a budget now. If neither is working for you in 3 months, change things up! Schedule check-in points now for throughout the year where you’ll reassess your plan and whether or not you need to pivot.
20. Make it hands-on.
One of the big driving forces for the work we do at Lelu is that kids should get to live out meaningful language experiences. There is a difference between reading about a bus in a book and actually getting on a bus to go on an adventure. At Lelu, we design so kids can manipulate materials, build and create meaningful memories in the target language. This year, find ways to make your language engagement more hands-on. Help your kids have meaningful lived experiences in the target language!
21. It’s never too late! It’s never too early!
It breaks my heart when I hear parents say things like, “my kids are 10 and 8 so they’re too old to learn now.” Noooo!!! This is a misguided application of an observation in research that the “earlier you learn the better” the only benefit of learning a language from a young age is that you won’t have an accent. But accents are beautiful and they are our living proof that you can learn another language later in life. I love accents! It’s also never too early– expose kids to rich language constantly from the time they’re in vitro. Start now. Start here. It’s never too late, or too early.
22. You can do this!
Yes, I know I already said this and I risk sounding corny by ending with this BUT, but with something as important and challenging as bilingualism, it is worth repeating. You can do this. You really can. Yes it will be hard, yes you’ll have bad days, but you’ve got to keep your eyes on the prize. And get plugged into community. We’re in this together. Pa’lante juntos, mi gente. ¡Sí se puede!