Bilingual is Better

Today we welcome our newest expert into the SpanglishBaby familia, Marcel O. Ponton, Ph.D. We are particularly excited for the incredible amount of knowledge he has on behavioral and development problems regarding bilinguals and because we finally have the male perspective on board! To submit your questions to Dr. Ponton and our panel of experts please go here.

It’s amazing how fast and and how much of the Spanish language my almost 2 year old daughter Audrey is learning. We practice the OPOL method here at home.

We are working on teaching Audrey her body parts at the moment. When she is with dad he tells her the names of her body parts in English and I tell her their names in Spanish.

Lately, when I ask her to show me where her “ojos”, “boca”, “nariz” is she points to the right place but tells me the name in English. I am not sure if I should correct her and tell her to say it in Spanish or just be excited about the fact that she is bilingual and understands both languages, but prefers to say them in English. Would love to hear your thoughts.


Dear Marcela,

How children acquire language to represent their world is one of the greatest joys we parents have in raising them. (When they reach adolescence, of course, bilingual insolence is doubly vexing, but that is the subject of another column…) Audrey’s world is bilingual, as she can identify the target body parts, regardless of the language you and your husband are using.  Congratulations! You are doing a good job.  While language development goes beyond identification or association of phonemic units with objects in the physical world, the speed and accuracy of Audrey’s language(s) acquisition can be affected by multiple factors.  I just want to cover a couple of issues here, which may be of help to you.

First, there is a method-based component.  The OPOL method (one parent one language), which has many advantages, tends to produce what is known as “passive bilinguals.” What you are describing is typical of this approach.  That is, the child listens to Spanish but answers in English.  This may be a function of socialization experiences.  If Audrey only uses Spanish at home with you, but does not need to use it in her socialization experiences or in other learning environments, it may be difficult for her to maintain the language.


  • Organize her play dates as well as other social experiences involve other bilingual toddlers/parents, so it becomes natural and practical for her to use Spanish. The point is to use the language in different social settings.
  • Being in contact with other extended family members (e.g., grandparents) who only speak Spanish to her is also very important, as she will learn to communicate her needs and wants in Spanish.  In other words, Audrey will learn the utility of using Spanish.
  • In the specific situation when Audrey points to her “Nariz,” but tells you “nose,” I would reply: “Muy bien, esa es tu nariz. A ver, di: ‘na-riz.’” And then I would re-inforce her use of Spanish.  Clearly, some Spanish phonemes may be more difficult for her as she is learning to pronounce words in general. Thus, she may say “riz” because that is easy for her. Make a game of it, and reinforce her use of the language at every step, even if she is not saying the word perfectly.  When she becomes older, the same will be true of grammar.  It is better for the child to use the language fluidly than correctly. Let her convey her thoughts, then later correct her and give her appropriate grammatical rules.

The second issue, and perhaps the most crucial for the long term use of both languages, has to do with learning of formal information. Soon, she will be in pre-school, and then kindergarten.


  • As the child starts formal schooling, you may want to incorporate other methods of second language acquisition.  Flexibility to adapt to the needs of the child should be the guiding principle. This may also require the expansion of your Spanish-language library.
  • It would seem very important to find a school district that has a dual immersion program in English and Spanish through the elementary years.  Unfortunately, I only know of such programs in selected school districts of California and Florida, but finding this resource will only take some basic searching. There may be private school options as well.
  • The point is that the bilingual education of your child is critical to facilitate her development as a balanced bilingual person. It is possible of course to be able to speak, but not read or write in Spanish, and claim some degree of bilingualism. It all depends on your goals and values.

I hope these ideas are of some help to you with you wonderful child.  I leave you with a fun trabalenguas that some day can help you teach Audrey our most distinctive consonant sound: ñ

Tamaño paño
tiñe el maño Nuño
con uña de año
y moña de puño.

Marcel O. Ponton, Ph.D. – Associate Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harbor UCLA. As a clinical neuropsychologist, he leads a team of clinicians at Persona Neurobehavior Group that specialize in the assessment and treatment of developmental, reading, learning and behavioral problems affecting bilingual children and adolescents. He has worked for the past 20 years with bilingual, bicultural patients. He has authored many articles on the cognitive assessment of bilingual individuals, and has co-authored two books. He has a private practice in South Pasadena. Dr. Ponton also leads the Bicultural Experience and Identity network online.

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