Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Dual Language Learning: Why and How We Do It, Part 1

We are a bilingual family, speaking Spanish at home and English outside the home.  This path is not an easy one, since American culture encourages assimilation and English primacy.  It has been particularly difficult for me because I am not fluent in Spanish; my parents are from South Texas, but chose to raise their family as English speakers (hence, I blog in English).  I learned little Spanish growing up, and have had to work diligently to learn more as an adult.  My husband and I believe that the struggle to raise children who speak equally well in two languages is well worth all of our effort.

Why do we want our children to learn Spanish?  There are reasons related to future educational and economic opportunities, but there are personal reasons also.  As a Mexican immigrant, maintaining his culture and native tongue, and passing both to our children, are very important to my husband.  Also, his parents are not fluent in English.  One of my grandmothers spoke only Spanish, and I missed the opportunity to develop a close relationship with her because I could not talk to her beyond simple responses to her questions.  I often wish I could have known her better.  My children’s language skills have enabled them to build strong relationships with all of their grandparents, and to converse with extended family members who live in Mexico.

Also, cultural experiences, including traditional foods, music, dances, games, rhymes, songs, and literature are greatly enhanced with knowledge of the original language.  I feel that our life is enriched by our culture and that learning either culture on its own or language on its own are not enough, especially since we have the opportunity to teach both.

So, how do we do it?  I share what is working for us, which admittedly may only work for your family if at least one parent knows the language you wish to teach, or is willing to learn it along with the children.

Image courtesy of AHISD

2 Strategies for Raising Dual Language Learners
(with more to come in a separate post)

Define your language time and stick to it.

We chose to designate our language time by defining our home, and the homes of other Spanish speaking family members, as Spanish only.  I have heard about other families who designate a parent for each language, or devote a certain amount of time each day.  The outcome of our strategy is that our daughters’ primary language is Spanish; we hope this will ensure that they maintain fluency in Spanish while living in an English dominant environment.

Maintaining our family interactions in Spanish has been the most difficult part of our journey.  As the years pass, our older daughter (she is now eight), speaks more and more English at home, in spite of our continuous insistence during each and every day that we speak Spanish at home: nosotros hablamos español en la casa.  I probably say this dozens of times each day.  It would be easy to give up, but we are resolved to raise bilingual children, and that keeps me going on the days when English just keeps coming out of her mouth.

Educate in the language, at school and at home.

Our older daughter is enrolled in a public school dual language program; she and her classmates are learning in both English and Spanish, with a heavier emphasis on Spanish.  She attended a Spanish language pre-k and began the dual language program in kindergarten with eighty percent of her school day in Spanish.  We are extremely grateful for this opportunity, which is rare in our city and state.  The vast majority of Spanish language school programs are designed to teach the children English, with a goal of moving them to an English only classroom as soon as possible.  A dual language program educates with the intention of producing bilingual fluency. I have also heard about immersion programs in both Spanish and Mandarin.

Currently, my daughter and her classmates receive instruction in Spanish for math, reading, writing, and spelling.  They learn science, social studies, more spelling, grammar, music, and participate in physical activity in English. I also supplement my daughter’s school learning at home with lessons in art, religion, cooking, sewing, and more, all in Spanish.  This year, I am homeschooling our younger daughter for pre-k, also in Spanish with a little English (more about this in a future post).

If your school district offers a dual language or immersion language opportunity, I urge you to take advantage of it.  If you are fluent in another language and are teaching it to your children, I hope you will share what works for you.  If you are thinking about teaching language to your children, I highly recommend it.  Even a small amount of instruction can give your child the confidence to learn more as they continue their education.

I have more ideas about raising dual language learners that I will share in another post.  I have been too busy to finish writing the longer post that I planned, and I did not want to delay posting any longer (it has been 11 days).  Check back, and please share your responses, strategies, and ideas in the comment box.

This post is highlighted at the September Bilingualism Blogging Carnival.


  1. You're kids are so lucky you are making this a priority for your family. They will benefit so much by knowing both languages. Thank you for sharing you.r insight at the My Favorite Things Link Party

  2. I think it is awesome that you made this choice. I Italian had come down through my maternal side like that. I also wish I knew enough of any language to teach one to my children now.

  3. That is wonderful that you are so dedicated to teaching your kids Spanish. I'm sure the bilingual schooling helps, but it really helps to have it reinforced at home as well. We have chosen the path of One Parent One Language. It has its advantages (we each get to speak to our son in our native language), but it means that for now our toddler mainly speaks English, since he is mostly with me (the English-speaker) all day and we are immersed in an English-speaking environment. Having a fully Spanish-speaking home would definitely make his Spanish language skills stronger.

  4. Thank you all for your comments.

    Martianne, have you considered learning a language with your children? I have read posts from homeschooling mothers who choose that option.

    Leanna, I think your choices about language are also wonderful. I have heard about families who successfully teach two or more languages to their children by designating to each parent. My daughter's school also sends her class to different teachers for the English part of their day. Their homeroom teacher is Spanish only; their academic English subjects (currently social studies, science, and spelling) are taught by a second teacher, and the extras (library, music, & PE) are also in English.

  5. Thank you for linking up with "Say it Two Ways Thursdays"! keep the faith!

  6. I have enjoyed reading your post as to how Dual Language has been a choice for you and your family. I am a 3rd grade Dual Language instructor in what is now going to become a full Dual Language school. I think it is important to note that students are not just learning to be bilingual. They are learning to be 'biliterate.' Children will not only be able to speak another language but they will be able to read and write as a native in their second language. Your children will be able to take this knowledge into the 'global' workplace and be able to comptete with people from other countries. Good for you!

    1. Thank you for your comment and for mentioning that biliteracy, or native fluency in two languages, is the goal of Dual Language programs. I am so glad to read that your school is becoming entirely Dual Language; what a wonderful opportunity for the children in your community!


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