Words by: Micah Bellieu
The decision to raise your children bilingual is huge. Even if you’re a native speaker, it’s hard. I know dozens of families whose children spoke only Spanish until kindergarten and then, by first grade, could only speak English. Raising bilingual kids takes intention and commitment.
At age 39, I now speak English (my only native language), Spanish, French and Japanese. My fluency didn’t come from formal schooling, although it did start there. I studied those languages for over 14 semesters in high school and college but still could not speak them (although I could read and write). So what was my fluency breakthrough?
At age 26, I decided to talk with someone for 1.5 hours a day in Spanish for one year. There was no classroom, no grammar lesson, no curriculum. I was learning Spanish simply by being around it and trying to express myself — just as I had learned English.
After a year, I spoke quite well. So I continued to find others to talk with (both free and paid online) while exploring Spanish-language music, books, movies, events, and more. After another year or two, I spoke Spanish very well.
So I decided to do the same with French and then, later, Japanese.
Now, I make a living teaching English and Spanish to kids and adults naturally. And I’d love to share what I’ve learned so that you, too, can incorporate language into your everyday bilingual homeschooling life. We’ll talk mostly about Spanish below, but these are tips for any language.
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A low basic level of fluency in the romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese) requires a minimum of 300 conversation hours. Your children will acquire those hours a lot faster if you aren’t the only person speaking the target language to them. More people speaking = more time with a language = greater fluency. These people don’t have to be language teachers. Again, we all started learning English before we ever had an official English teacher in school. Mastering a second language works the same way. Here are a few ways to get your kids more exposure to your target language (not to mention build relationships that will enrich their lives).
- Hire a weekly babysitter who will interact with your kids in the target language.
- Make friends or attend events in neighborhoods where people speak the target language – this approach is usually easier in larger cities.
- Attend camps in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods where you will hear kids speaking to their parents and camp employees in Spanish.
- Schedule play dates with another family that shares your language goals or a family that already speaks the target language in the home.
- Make friends at the library in a neighborhood where the population speaks the target language or attend library events with storytime in the target language.
- Attend cultural events for kids in the target language
- Drop in to live Spanish immersion classes online taught by native speakers. The keyword here is “live.” Real-time language learning is the most valuable. No pen and paper are necessary. Just let your kids listen, absorb, and try to talk. If you’d like to try live online classes, here is 20% off your first order/course. Use, use promo INT20 at www.trufluencykids.com.
Try Easy Ways to Add More Language Time
There are plenty of ways to tweak your daily routines to help kids spend more time with the language they’re learning. Remember, every little bit of language exposure brings fluency that much closer. Don’t try all of these suggestions at once. Pick just one of the ideas below, and focus on it for six months.
- Have your kids ever memorized a favorite book that you read every night? That can happen with books in Spanish, too. Make reading books in the language your kids are learning part of your nighttime routine. If you’re not fluent in the target language yourself, you could try audiobooks or YouTube so that your kids will hear a native speaker. But your accent is great, too!
- We learn language by listening first, then speaking. So if you’d like to use apps to supplement your kids’ language learning, choose ones that focus on audio activities. Don’t worry about reading and writing until much later.
- Commit to 15 minutes of TV time in the target language per day. Starting this at a young age is even better.
- Choose a daily phrase in the target language that everyone can use at a particular time of day. A few ideas: “Let’s eat!” “Time for bed” “Come on!” “Wait!” “I want a ….” etc. This method works for language learners of all ages.
Go on an Immersion Trip
If it’s possible for your family, take your kids on an immersion trip. I have a friend who does two weeks of immersion with his teenage daughter in a different Spanish-speaking country each year. The immersion trips allow them to quickly jump up a level in fluency, confidence, and listening skills. They even stay with a family while there to remain immersed in Spanish during meals and daily interactions. They keep up with Spanish back home by committing to weekly conversation time during the rest of the year.
Not sure you can swing an international trip right now? Think of it this way: A flight, Airbnb, and a week of language classes in a Latin American country can still be cheaper than one week of some summer camps in the U.S.
Another option is an immersion trip within your own country. For example, if your kids are learning Spanish and are in the U.S., visiting a city like Miami or San Antonio should enable you to immerse yourself in Spanish-only environments.
Focus on Consistency, Not Perfection
There’s only one thing you need to be focused on when helping your kids become bilingual: whatever you’re doing to build their language skills, just do it consistently. Be realistic about what’s sustainable for your kids over time. If you go all out at first, you risk burning yourself and your kids out. Every little bit counts. One hour a week of language practice, kindergarten-12th grade, adds up to 676 hours when your child finishes high school. That’s an extraordinary level!
On the other hand, there’s a lot you don’t need to be concerned about at all. Not a native speaker of the language your kids are learning? No big deal. Just use the ideas here to help your kids spend time talking with native speakers. Worried that they’ll speak their second language with an accent? Yes, they might. Most polyglots who speak seven or more languages have accents in their non-native languages (I have an accent in all of my non-native languages, but everyone understands me, and that’s the goal). But that doesn’t take away from their ability to communicate in the language.
Bottom line? Just don’t quit. Over time, all of your efforts will make a big difference in your kids’ language skills as an adult.
If you’d like to try live online classes, here is 20% off your first order/course. Use, use promo INT20 at www.trufluencykids.com.
Micah Bellieu is the Founder of TruFluency Kids Spanish Immersion School Online. She is currently pregnant with her first child and recently hired her first Spanish-speaking babysitter for 16 hours a week. She will be spending one month in Mexico right after Thanksgiving until right before Christmas. She knows it will be a challenge to ensure her kid is bilingual, but she’s undoubtedly going to put up a fight for it.