Bilingual is Better

This post was originally published on May, 11th 2009.

Today’s question was sent by Jasmine Caruthers. She’s pregnant with her first child and, both she and her husband know they want their child to learn Spanish even if they don’t speak it themselves.

“I am pregnant with my first child and both my husband and 
I speak English. However, I would like to raise my child to speak both 
English and Spanish. I was going to send my baby to a bilingual 
speaking school but I am having trouble locating any in Alabama. I 
really do not know how to go about doing this but it is important for 
my child to be bilingual. Do you have any advice on how to raise a 
child from an English speaking home, to speak Spanish? Thank you much.”

Dear Jasmine,

First of all, I think it’s great that you are so “enlightened” and convinced to raise your child bilingually even if both you and your partner are monolingual. There are a lot of people in the US who do speak two languages themselves, but are afraid of teaching them to their children for fear that they will lag behind in English or not learn it as well as other monolingual children. So, again, it’s great that you understand what a great gift it is to give your child two languages and see him grow bilingually.

The fact that neither you nor your husband speak Spanish makes your wish a bit more difficult to realize because you will truly have to rely on someone else for providing that extra language for your child. But I believe that your motivation and encouragement will make it possible.

I think the best way to go is to try to hire someone – a Spanish-speaking person – to spend time with your child in the early years (ideally birth to five and beyond). I am not sure how realistic this is for you but if you work and can afford a nanny/au pair, this would be the most successful strategy that I can think of. Be specific when you hire this person that you want him/her to speak Spanish to your child and not English. Barbara Zurer Pearson’s book “Raising a Bilingual Child” warns that many nannies end up using English with the children they watch, both because they want to practice English or because the child might speak English to them. You might want to be very firm and explain to your nanny that you are specifically hiring her/him to teach Spanish to your child, and so that no English should be used.

I used this strategy myself. When my first daughter was one and a half and my youngest was a newborn I hired a Spanish-speaking nanny to work for us for 36 hours a week. I was lucky because this woman spoke no English or Italian (which I speak to my daughters), so my daughters soon learned that they had to interact in Spanish with her. Today, at 5 and 3 and a half, my youngest daughter is pretty fluent in the language and the oldest speaks Spanish almost natively! In addition, they speak English (which they are picking up from dad and school) and Italian. It is truly amazing to see these little people move so easily back and forth between languages! And, for Spanish, I owe it all to my nanny. The new challenge will be for me to maintain Spanish-speaking opportunities for my daughters as they grow. But the nanny definitely planted the seeds.

If the nanny is out of the question, then you will have to rely on schooling. You should look everywhere in your area (as far as you are willing to commute) to find a bilingual daycare, preschool or school. Unfortunately, these are hard to find, but if you are willing to commute a bit you might increase your chances of finding one (I myself will start driving 26 miles a day this September to bring my oldest daughter to an Italian-English dual language school).

Finally, if even the school option is out, then you might have to scale down your dream of raising your child bilingually, although you can still help him/her learn some Spanish. You can do this by participating in Spanish mommy-and-me classes, by playing Spanish music and videos, perhaps by participating in Spanish-language play groups, etc. These activities won’t make your child bilingual but they might introduce him to the language, and therefore help him learn it later when new opportunities (i.e. Spanish language classes, Spanish-language programs) arise.

I wish all the best to you, your baby and your intent to raise him/her bilingually.

Simona Montanari, Ph. D.

Simona Montanari, Ph.D., is an expert on early multilingual development and Assistant Professor of Child and Family Studies at California State University in Los Angeles. You can learn more about her here and read her previous inspiring answers to our reader’s questions here.

Dr. Montanari is located in the Los Angeles area. For more information or to schedule a phone/in person consultation contact her at

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