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Becoming Bilingual in Spanish and English: Why Is It Important? What Can Parents Do?

There are many things that parents can do to value the Spanish language that they speak and develop their children’s interest in speaking, reading, and learning Spanish.
1 Nov 2017 – 06:18 PM EDT
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Bilingualism offers cognitive and academic benefits. Crédito: Lynne Sladky/AP

When parents of immigrant children, and children born in the United States, value their mother tongue, keep it alive at home and in the community, and provide various opportunities for their children to experience their language and culture in meaningful ways, these children are consistently exposed to their heritage language and can become bilingual.

Children of Spanish-speaking parents (or one parent who speaks Spanish) already have a connection with their parents’ language of origin. When this connection is nurtured, they can better understand their family’s values, history, and cultural heritage and will be motivated to continue to develop these in their own lives, as part of their own identity.

This article describes the many benefits of bilingualism and suggests some concrete ways that Hispanic parents can help their children to get an early start.

  • How Does Speaking Two Languages Help my Child?

Bilingualism offers cognitive and academic benefits and influences positive behavior in our global and diverse society. Increasingly, U.S. residents are considering the importance and value of being bilingual, and researchers have found that individuals who know more than one language:

  1. Are often more creative and better at solving complex problems than monolinguals;
  2. Often have positive attitudes about other language groups and more knowledge of and respect for other cultures;
  3. Are able to learn additional languages better, because they have an understanding of how languages work;
  4. Often have double the vocabulary of monolingual children, because they know words in both languages; and
  5. Have better career opportunities and are able to work effectively with customers, clients, and businesses from a range of different countries and cultures.

In addition to the research above, this Huffington Post Latino Voices article gives a clear review of the advantages, and François Grosjean addresses questions specific to parents and caretakers in his article “ What Parents Want to Know about Bilingualism.”

  • Why Spanish?

Beyond its importance to your family and in your household, Spanish is an important language in the United States and around the world. More than 37 million U.S. residents are Spanish speakers, which makes it the most spoken non-English language in the United States, and Spanish is the primary language of communication in 21 countries.

  • How Can I Create Opportunities for My Children to Develop Their Spanish?

There are many things that parents can do to value the Spanish language that they speak and develop their children’s interest in speaking, reading, and learning Spanish. Here are a few:

  1. Speak Spanish with your children.
  2. Connect and communicate with others in the community who speak Spanish.
  3. Participate in community and school events in Spanish that celebrate the Spanish language and culture.
  4. Value and celebrate important cultural events (e.g., fiesta de quinceañera, key holidays celebrated in the country).
  5. Read Spanish language signs, newspapers, and magazines that are available in the community.
  6. Read books and play with bilingual toys together in Spanish.
  7. Listen to (and sing, if possible) songs and watch movies and television shows in Spanish.
  8. Find out if there are Spanish programs in your community, and learn about possible leadership opportunities available to adolescents who speak Spanish – such as tutoring and mentoring younger students.
  • How Can I Connect with Others in My Community?

There are community-based Spanish programs, for Spanish speakers, that have Saturday schools, summer camps, clubs, and other exciting language learning and leadership opportunities. It is helpful to find out what these programs are doing and to see if your community has a school for heritage Spanish speakers that your children can get involved in. For a few examples from around the country, see:

  • Where Can I Find More Information?

As part of its national Lead with Languages campaign, and developed in collaboration with the National Heritage Language Resource Center, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) provides a guide for parents of heritage learners that has been translated into more than a dozen common home languages, including Spanish. The site also features links to video testimonials by bilingual professionals who share the value that Spanish has played in their own success – such as the Detroit Tigers’ media relations director (in Spanish here) and a brand manager.

You can also explore some clear and easy-to-read books focused on teaching early learners, such as The Bilingual Edge: Why, When, and How to Teach Your Child a Second Language (Kendall King & Alison Mackey) or Be Bilingual: Practical Ideas for Multilingual Families (Annika Bourgogne).

Joy Kreeft Peyton, Senior Fellow, Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington, DC
Ana Lucia Lico, Co-founder and Executive Director, Brazilian Association for Culture and Education (ABRACE)