Bilingual is Better

Editor’s note: In honor of Dora the Explorer’s 10th birthday this month, here’s a post we originally published back on October 29, 2009 based on an interview with the co-creator of the Latina character with whom so many of our niños identify. ¡Felicidades, Dora!

FYI: Be on the lookout for a pretty cool Dora giveaway coming up very soon on our Finds section!

Her original name was not Dora and Latina she was not.

More than 10 years ago and after working with outside creators to come up with new ideas, Nickelodeon’s Valerie Walsh Valdes and Chris Gifford were given the opportunity of a lifetime: to develop their own show. This is what they thought up: a show about a preschool girl who has a bunch of animal friends and goes exploring every day. Her name was Tess.

But the network’s executives had other ideas. They had just come back from a conference which dealt with the fact that Latinos were the most underrepresented minority on television. What to do about it? Convert ‘Tess’ into a bilingual Latina girl called Dora. The problem? Neither Gifford nor Walsh Valdes were bilingual. So they hired a Latino writer and several Latino-savvy consultants, including Spanish language experts, and Dora the Explorer was born.

“We wanted to give an authentic cultural identity to the character, but also to the world around her,” said Walsh Valdes, the co-creator and executive producer of both Dora the Explorer and Go, Diego, Go.

Making the character a 7-year-old bilingual Latina was Nickelodeon’s response to the lack of positive Latino roles in the media.

“The idea was to make learning a second language appealing,” explained Walsh Valdes. “We were trying to make that [being bilingual] into a positive, something you should be proud of.”

But the idea was also to make Dora universally appealing.

“We didn’t want to alienate audiences who don’t speak another language, who are not bilingual,” said Walsh Valdes.

Which is the reason why Dora the Explorer is not really about teaching Spanish, it’s more about a little girl who goes on a different adventure in each show and happens to be bilingual in English and Spanish. However, since learning at this stage of a child’s life is something fun, the creators of the show definitely take advantage of that, according to Walsh Valdes.

Preschoolers are introduced to a new Spanish word or phrase which Dora uses repeatedly throughout each particular episode. Although Walsh Valdes said they’ve never “claimed to be teaching Spanish,” countless parents around the country credit Dora the Explorer with helping their children learn lots of vocabulary in Spanish.

The show is not only insanely popular in the U.S. – according to Nickelodeon, it’s the top preschool show on all of commercial television – but also at the international level. And it might have to do with the fact that bilingualism is a pretty normal way of growing up in most of the rest of the world.

“It’s not just kids who speak Spanish that identify with Dora,” explained Walsh Valdes. “Other bilingual kids see themselves in her.”

The co-creator of this show credits its unthinkable success to a couple of reasons. The first one is that each show presents “really great stories for that age group” – universal stories that appeal to preschoolers no matter their background. The second one is the “interactive” nature of the show. In other words, the fact that Dora always asks for the audience’s help so the adventure can move along, hence the short silent period right after a question is asked.

Although my daughter, Vanessa, didn’t really start “watching” TV until after she turned two – meaning it’s only been about a year – I have noticed how much more motivated she is to respond to Dora’s request now that she is a little older and has a larger vocabulary.

Gifting her daughter with bilingualism

Ironically, even though Walsh Valdes is not bilingual – despite taking four years of high school Spanish, as she says – she is raising her 2-year-old daughter to be, thanks to the creation of Dora the Explorer. Remember the Latino writer they hired back when Dora was being created? She married him. So now, thanks to her Cuban-born husband and their Latina nanny, Walsh Valdes is experiencing first-hand the amazing ability of children to learn two languages at once.

“I don’t speak Spanish, but I’m learning more from my daughter than I ever did in high school,” Walsh Valdez shared. “My husband says she is as verbal in Spanish as she is in English, which is amazing!”

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