Recently, I have had several parents ask for recommendations for toys to give as gifts to their children who are learning Spanish. I encouraged them to consider games or toys that are not obviously language learning activities.
Many games and toys are not language specific. If you are getting a gift for your child, and are going to be involved in playing, often the best investment is to buy a toy or game that lends itself to language learning, but is not a language activity.
How can a game or toy teach language without being principally a language activity? This apparent contradiction is actually the key to choosing an appropriate toy or game for a Spanish language learner.
Second language acquisition is not first language acquisition. Unless children are being raised in truly bilingual homes, few of them have the Spanish language ability to enjoy a language task at a level close to that of their first language. Although some frustration can be an incentive to learn, no one learns from tasks that are much too hard. Giving a child, or an adult, a game well above her language level is defeating and a waste of time, just as expecting her to read a book that is much too difficult would be. In addition, because second-language learners have a first language to retreat to, parents and teachers must carefully balance motivation and frustration by providing appropriate support. So, to engage a child, a game that you play in Spanish must have an interest level considerably above the language level, and also provide visual support for the language.
The best toy or game is one that is entertaining and challenging intellectually and that happens to use a specific set of vocabulary. This kind of game is much more likely to be successful in Spanish than the Spanish-language version of a game based principally on language. If it is a good toy, or game, the task itself will be engaging, and the language will be manageable. In most cases, there will be lots of repetition, and visual support for the language to make it clear.
Here is an example of how this works with a toy for young children, but there are games available for all ages that use specific, well-supported language. This game is called Avalanche Fruit Stand. You spin the spinner and try to take fruit off the stand without making it all fall. To take the fruit off, you use big tweezers. The idea is to get one of each kind of fruit. The game is simple, and if your child likes games where things go tumbling, it can be fun.
This game has a very manageable set of vocabulary and the opportunity for lots of repetition. You can certainly play this game saying only the colors and fruit in Spanish. However, just a few basic phrases make it an even better Spanish language activity. If you are learning Spanish with your child, you can put these phrases into a text-to-voice program on-line to be sure you are pronouncing them correctly. These are a few of the words and phrases you could use to play this game in Spanish with your child:
Los colores/ Colors:
verde – green
morado – purple
amarillo – yellow
rojo – red
Las frutas/ Fruit:
la naranja – orange
la manzana – apple
las uvas – grapes
el platano – banana
la fresa – strawberry
Rojo. Una fresa. – Red. A strawberry.
Las fresas son rojas. – Strawberries are red.
Intenta tomar una fresa. – Try to take a strawberry.
Las uvas son moradas. – Grapes are purple.
Toma unas uvas. – Take some grapes.
Haz girar la ruleta. ¡Rojo! – Spin the spinner. Red!
¡Dos! Toma dos frutas. – Two! Take two pieces of fruit.
¡Ten cuidado! – Be careful!
Se van a caer. – They’re going to fall.
¿Qué tienes? Una manzana, un platano y una fresa. – What do you have? An apple, a banana and a strawberry.
Necesitas una naranja. – You need an orange.
Necesito las pinzas. – I need the tweezers.
¿Tienes las pinzas? – Do you have the tweezers?
Te toca (a ti). / Es tu turno. – It’s your turn.
Me toca (a mí). / Es mi turno. – It’s my turn.
In addition to the language level required, there are a couple of other things to consider when choosing a game to learn Spanish. First, the best toy is undoubtedly the one that a child uses. Is the game the kind of thing she enjoys in her first language? If a child does not like puzzles, she is not going to enjoy doing one just because it is a good Spanish language learning activity.
Also, repetition is essential to learning Spanish. Choose products that you can use over and over. Games, puzzles and computer games can be played many times. On the other hand, craft projects are often something that can be done only once. There are some, like jewelry-making projects, that are things kids come back to. Those are great for speaking Spanish with your child.
Finally, keep it simple. There are many complicated, multi-leveled language learning programs available, but be realistic in your purchases and your expectations. Games are fun and a wonderful way to spend time together. Books and music provide authentic language and you can read or listen over and over. It is much easier to read a good picture book or listen to a CD in the car than to commit to a complicated language learning program. Also, investing in books, videos, music or games allows for variety and flexibility.