Becoming Bilingual: Teaching Toddlers Another Language

By Tracy Wright

Before Lauren and Jose Soberon even had children, they began having the important discussion of how they should teach their child Spanish. Both from Cuban backgrounds, Jose and Lauren had very different exposure to Spanish while growing up. Jose grew up in the diverse Cuban community of Hialeah, Florida, around Spanish-speaking relatives. He spoke both Spanish and English fluently from an early age. Lauren grew up with mostly her non-Spanish speaking relatives in the mostly Caucasian community in Tampa. Although she learned Spanish when she was older, it was certainly not Lauren’s native language. Jose and Lauren wondered how they could expose their future children to Spanish.

How to do it?

When navigating the many milestones of toddlerhood—potty training, crib transitions, social anxiety—language development is certainly one of those. For children who may have one or more bilingual parents, they may struggle with how or even if to introduce the second language to their child. The research shows that exposing children to the language earlier yields more benefits.

“After consulting with many speech pathologists, pediatricians and psychologists, we were committed to exposing our children to Spanish from the very beginning. The experts we talked to all said that the best way to expose them to Spanish was only speaking Spanish in the home,” Lauren said.

Lauren and Jose now have two sons, Gabriel and Sebastian, ages two and four, who are fully fluent in Spanish. When they are at home or with their children, they only speak Spanish. Even when they are speaking to each other in front of the children, they speak Spanish. Now a stay-at-home mother, Lauren was educated in psychology and she also drew on her own expertise to make this decision.

“I know what it was like to have a certain background but not know the language of your heritage, and I did not want that for my children,” Lauren said. “We are a proud Hispanic-American family, and we did not want to have passively bilingual children, rather we wanted them to be fully proficient in speaking and writing Spanish.”

The facts:

During the first five years, a child’s brain is at its most flexible, making this a critical period for learning and growth. 90% of the child’s brain is formed by age 5. That is why it’s never too soon to begin thinking about making these decisions for your child. The First Five Years Fund—an advocacy group for early childhood development—warns that waiting until kindergarten is too late to introduce learning experiences for children, like language development.

Lauren says they remained committed to teaching their children Spanish, but it was not without its challenges, especially for her. “It was easier for my husband because that was primarily his native language growing up,” Lauren said. “It was not my native language and was not my nurturing language. My mom was my primary caregiver and she only spoke English. “I struggled at times, and I felt like I was learning the language as much as my children were.”

Lauren also said they confronted friends and family who challenged them on their decisions, even Jose’s family who primarily spoke Spanish. They were afraid that perhaps their sons would be discriminated against, something that has not happened at all.

“Gainesville is actually a really diverse city with not only Spanish speaking families but other families who speak different languages at home,” Lauren said. “Teachers and friends in
the community understand our decision and fully support our choice.”

But does only speaking a foreign language at home affect language development of English? Lauren said no, and the research on this topic supports it. Research in sociolinguistics tells us that children learn language from their peers, even from a very young age. NC State linguist Walt Wolfram, for example, has shown that peers start being more important linguistic role models than parents at around the age of four.