Language learning concepts important to raising bilingual kids.

One of the things I found made teaching Spanish to my kids easier was that I was a teacher and understood language learning. Even the most motivated parents, with perfect language skills, do not always know how to create situations where children can learn Spanish when it is not the majority language.

If you are teaching kids Spanish at home or at school, be sure to check out our Teach Kids Spanish: Resources and Strategies page. You’ll find lots of helpful, inspiring information.

Although language learning is complicated, and every situation is different, a basic understanding of what works is a big help. Much of what I say here coincides with Stephen Krashen’s theories on language acquisition and other research in the field. If you would like to read more about how children learn language, Krashen’s work is a good place to start.

Comprehensible language

Children learn new language when it is in a context that makes the meaning clear. Visuals clues (pictures, objects, gestures, facial expressions) and a child’s understanding of the world can clarify new language to help a child understand. Books can be wonderful sources of comprehensible language because the world of the story creates a limited context, and the pictures and storyline combine to make the meaning of the text clear.

What it means for you

As a parent (or a teacher), you are a primary source of comprehensible language. Talk about everything you do and describe what your child is doing. Comment on what you see and hear around you. Read to your child, and provide as many situations as possible where language is combined with physical, hands-on learning and supported by visual and situational clues.

Natural language

Children need to hear and read Spanish used naturally, in complete and related sentences. Language is much more than vocabulary. It is a complex system and to learn how the parts fit together, children need to be exposed to the whole, not just individual pieces. Of course you can teach vocabulary, but that is only a small part of what children need to acquire language.

What it means for you

Provide as much whole language at the appropriate level as possible. Talk to your child in Spanish using complete sentences. Read to your child every day. (See 10 Best Strategies for Reading to Kids in Spanish.) When choosing Spanish language books, apps, and activities, look for products that use the words in full sentences and combine sentences to communicate real information.

Relevant, meaningful language

To learn a language children must engage in real communication. The content of the message has to be important to them; it has to carry meaning that is relevant to the situation and their lives. Ideally, children need to understand and express themselves, but in low-stress situations.

What it means for you

Provide as many opportunities as possible for children to act upon what they understand. Also, find situations where they need to express themselves in Spanish. When your child speaks Spanish to you, make every effort to reinforce the power of the language by focusing on the content and reacting positively.

Level of language

For children to acquire language, they have to be exposed to new structures and vocabulary. However, it is important that this happen through many small steps. The level of the input should engage and slightly challenge a child, but if it is too high, a child will not be able to retain or process what she is hearing or reading.

What it means for you

As a primary source of comprehensible language, you need to keep your child’s level in mind. Often, as kids grow, there is a tendency for us to move to materials that are age appropriate, but are too complicated for them to learn from. It can be a challenge to find high-interest activities and materials at the correct language level for kids in elementary and middle school. Combining different types of materials helps with this. For example, continue to read picture books to your child, although they might seem “babyish,” but look for popular, age-appropriate music in Spanish. Also, many games and activities that are not primarily language-based let you adjust the level of Spanish that you speak to your child. For example, playing games like checkers or chess, doing jigsaw puzzles or cooking together you can provide lots of comprehensible input at the correct level as your child does something she enjoys.

Repetition and exposure to language

Acquiring language is a complicated, long-term process. It depends on repeated exposure, both in the short term and over time. To learn and remember a new word, children must hear it used in a meaningful context many times. To learn and acquire complex grammatical structures takes even more exposure.

What it means for you

The time that it takes to truly acquire a language is both a challenge and a godsend. Consistency matters a lot, but we have time to try, shift strategies, adapt what we are doing to ever-changing kids, and try again. Because repeated exposure is essential, when you do not know what to do, do something you have done before. Break out old books, games and movies. There is more learning left in them than you think.

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