What to Do About Spanish. Otra vez!

by Alice · 16 comments

By Alice Lapuerta

What to do about that Other Language? The third one.

The one that is definitely under-represented in our household, because the native speaker who is supposed to represent it, aka The Hubby, is not always here to speak it, on account of a very demanding full-time job that includes frequent business trips abroad.

This, in addition to our decision to undergo The Great Language shift several years ago because of various reasons (switching from one-parent-one-language (OPOL) to minority language English as family language@home) resulted in Spanish taking the position of the poor Cinderella stepchild. It gets acknowledged only now and then.

Trips to Ecuador to visit the abuelos are rare, and even though we try to compensate by traveling to Spain instead, those trips aren’t any more frequent, either. Spanish resources here in Austria are as good as nonexistent. Our DVDs are dubbed in English and Swiss German, but not in Spanish. There are no other Spanish speaking kids in our monolingual Village with whom we could meet up for playgroups. And no, we don’t want to have an au pair, so that option won’t work for us, either.

I worry that we are fake trilinguals now, wanna-be multilinguals, bilinguals parading around as trilinguals, because we have a pretty decent command over German and English, but Spanish, alas, is doomed to go down the drains. It’s frustrating to say the least.

So what can one do?

Such is life: you’ve got do the best with what you have. So when hubby’s not here to speak Spanish, I do.

I know that some say if a language isn’t your native one you probably shouldn’t speak it. Because, oh horror, what if the kids end up with your accent? Or your bad grammar? What if they end up as semi-linguals as a result? Terrible!

As far as I am concerned I will listen to all those arguments and theories politely, and then pull up my sleeves and get down to the reality of OUR situation. Because it all looks very different in every-day life.

Our breakfast table at 6:30am: Either one of us speaks a language that is not his or her native one (English for The Hubby or Spanish for me) – complete with accent, bad grammar and poor vocabulary. Or, if that is just too dreadful to behold, the only other option left for us is that we just don’t communicate AT ALL. Period. This second option is rather ridiculous – some language (even rudimentarily spoken) must be better than none at all.

Our goal is not to create little Einsteins who speak several languages perfectly before they hit the age of six just because we want them to. No. Our goal is for our kids to obtain a certain level of aptitude in Spanish so they can communicate with their abuelos and cousins when they visit, or when we visit them.

Our goal is for them to realize that Spanish is FUN! And to motivate them to learn the language on their own, one day. Since we are realists, we know they probably won’t be fluent in the language unless there is a real need for them to speak it. Thus, as far as we are concerned, their Spanish need neither be perfect nor fluent.

We go with what we have. We cross our fingers, toes and tongues.

How does one go about doing this? How does one convey a minority language that oneself doesn’t speak very well?

Easy: I sing!

Oh, and how I sing! I sing Los pollitos dicen, Elena la balena, La mar estaba serena, Arroz con leche, Mambru, Pin Pon and many more songs and nursery rhymes. And let me tell you, I am good at this!

Let me explain why: when I attended a one-on-one Spanish intensive course in Ecuador several years ago, I did something clever. I told my language teacher to pack away her grammar books, and to teach me Spanish nursery songs instead. The ones that are popular in Ecuador. The ones that she herself sings to her children every night. The ones that abuelita sings.

I sat in that classroom, 4 hours each day, 5 days a week, and learned how to sing those songs. And then I’d go home and sing them to my baby. Yes, I also kept singing La, Le, Lu, Alle meine Entchen and Fuchs Du hast die Gans gestohlen as well, after all, these are the songs that I grew up with and so my kids should, as well. But the emphasis was more on Spanish. Because I knew they’d learn all those German songs in playgroups and kindergarten here anyway. And I knew that once we returned to Austria, there would no longer be a Spanish speaking abuelita to sing Spanish songs. So if I didn’t sing them to our kids, no one would.

Is this going to turn them into fluent Spanish speakers? I doubt it.

So I read.

We have tons of children’s books in Spanish, because I asked, no, I begged, I beseeched on my knees! – all our relatives and friends to please, please, PLEASE send us Spanish children’s books, because if they didn’t, I told them, they would be invariably responsible for my kids not learning Spanish.

Books, books and more books in Spanish!

This worked like magic. Our bookshelves are now overflowing with books, from Don Quixote to Elmo teaching good manners in Spanish. We read them together. It happens often that I don’t understand certain words, or my kids ask me what this or that means, and I have no clue.

I turn the question around, craftily: “What do YOU think it means?”

We try to decipher the meaning from context. When I am in a particularly clever mood, I look it up in a dictionary. Most of the time I tell them, “We’ll ask Papi later.” It is understood, of course, that when The Hubby is around, that particular treat of reading in Spanish falls on him, of course.

A great help are also DVDs like Speekee, Fun with Colors, or Bilingual Fun. My kids love these! My son, especially, is crazy over them. Whoever said that kids can’t learn a language from TV and DVDs should move into our household and observe my kids. Because they are soaking up the language with a speed and ability that amazes me.

My son, especially, has memorized entire scenes in Spanish and acts them out when he thinks no one is looking. The question that presents us now is how to break out of that basic level? How can we propel them onto the next level?

It also helps, certainly, that at Isabella’s school they offer an “español para niños” class after school. If you ask her what her favorite subject is, she will answer “IT and español!” I peeked into her homework book and am pleased to see that she is learning how to write in Spanish, now!

Our playful approach towards Spanish led to the result that my kids think that Spanish is a fun language. It is a language for singing, playing and vacation time! Sure, their ability is very basic, but they seem to understand, they know their colors, counting, and basic sentences. When they absolutely have to they suddenly can communicate with the abuelos and the cousins over Skype.

In fact, am counting on the abuelos to come visit us soon. I hope we can implement a “Spanish only” time for as long as they are here. We have even talked about having one of The Hubby’s nephews or nieces come over and visit us as an exchange student. We are still discussing this option.

The birth of our youngest in April of this year triggered yet another Language Shift in our Family! We are discussing whether we should revert from English as family language back to strictly OPOL. Or maybe a mix of both: OPOL when we are alone with the kids, and English when we are all together?

At any rate, The Peeps is definitely motivating all of us to speak more Spanish.

The Hubby is crooning to him in Spanish. My daughter is singing Los Pollitos dicen to him. And Dominik has found in him the perfect audience for his chanting: “azul, verde, amarillo yyyyyy… morado!”

It looks like Spanish won’t go down the drain after all.

Alice Lapuerta, the Editor of Multilingual Living Magazine, is a regular contributor at Multilingual Living. She grew up in a trilingual household of German, Korean and English. She and her husband from Ecuador live in Austria where they are raising their three children trilingually in German, Spanish and English.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Maria July 1, 2010 at 12:45 pm

I’m glad! Isabella was a bit shy last time we tried to speak in Spanish with her, I hope it was only a phase and she’s over it.

Can you access Spotify in Austria now? I find myself searching for a lot of the music I know from my childhood: back then, there was a lot more stuff (TV, music) directed to children, safe, clean, fun. One of these artists, a clown called Miliki, even released an album a few years back directed to his grown up fans, called “A mis niños de 30 años”, and I have been singing those all day! Also other artists like Parchis or Enrique y Ana. And the songs from TV shows of back then… mmm, I’ve been feeling quite nostalgic, but it has been fun to listen to all those again. Let me know if you can get Spotify, and I’ll give you a list of albums I like in spanish for the kids, ok?


2 Alice July 1, 2010 at 11:33 pm

HI Maria, that was before we went to Ecuador and this really helped her open up more in Spanish! Now that she has Spanish class after school as well it also helps her to lose her shyness.
And yes, I tried the Spotify again several weeks ago and they STILL don’t have it in Austria. It sounds like such a good thing, though. I hope one day they will decide to open up Austria for this as well …


3 Amy February 6, 2011 at 5:37 am

Hi Maria,

Would you be willing to share your list of albums? My children love listening to music in Spanish and I could really use some new resources. A number of years ago we found a great website http://www.songsforteaching.com They have a Children’s Spanish Music box set that my 1-5 year olds still love. We would love some fresh Spanish music in our house. Thanks so much!


4 Maria February 6, 2011 at 8:47 am


The one I play more often is Miliki, which brings me right to my childhood. He released “A mis niños de 30 años” a few years ago.

Enrique y Ana were a duet who played children songs also in the 80s. You can see their albums here: http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enrique_y_Ana
Our favorite songs are La gallina cocoua and Amigo Felix.

Parchis was a band of 5 children also in the 80’s . Very corny these days, but fun songs that I still think of with nostalgia: http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parch%C3%ADs_(grupo)

I recently got a couple of CDs from my brother in law for my son with traditional children songs… they are in the car, but I will try to remember to bring them over 🙂


5 Gretchen February 7, 2011 at 4:26 am

We love “Fiesta Musical: A Musical Adventure Through Latin America for Children.”


6 Monica July 1, 2010 at 8:06 pm

LOVE IT! I struggle so often, too, but one thing I definitely do is play a lot of children’s songs in Spanish and read a lot of bilingual books. I really am trying to find a more productive DVD set or curriculum to help me teach them Spanish.

Thanks for this post. Gives a lot of people hope, I think!


7 Alice July 1, 2010 at 11:35 pm

Thanks for your lovely feedback, Monica. And PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE share when you have found that DVD set (I am constantly on the lookout as well) and curriculum! I am looking for something that goes beyond the basics (the colors, counting and como te llamas -kind of thing. My kids have THAT down for sure, lol).


8 Ana Lilian July 1, 2010 at 10:23 pm

Yes! You do what you can with what you have.

Have you seen the books published by http://bilingualreaders.com/?

They are in Spain. A bit closer to home for you.


9 Alice July 1, 2010 at 11:37 pm

Aaah very interesting! Thank you for sharing, Ana Lilian!


10 Maria H July 2, 2010 at 7:26 pm

Kudos to you for stepping in. There are several moms in my Spanish playgroup that, like you, are stepping in to try and do a little more (b/c for whatever reason hubby can not). I find it so inspiring when the journey is so important to the whole family. Spanish is only one of two languages for us yet I have found the birth of each new sibling to be a fountain on inspiration for everyone to really fall in love with Spanish all over again. Glad to see you are finding the same joy. If there are any Spanish resources in particular you are searching for please let me know and I’ll do my best to help.


11 Alice July 3, 2010 at 11:07 pm

Thank you for your comment, Maria H! If you find useful websites/ DVDs that help our children acquire Spanish, do share! Thanks! 🙂


12 Marta July 4, 2010 at 12:07 am

Very inspiring post! Thanks! I’ve seen your website after visiting http://wheregoinghavo.blogspot.com/

We are a bilingual family (Spanish&Catalan) and live in Barcelona. Our little son is learning English and I think one day he’ll speak better than us 🙂

I love this sentence you wrote, it describes our relationship with the English language: “Our playful approach towards Spanish led to the result that my kids think that Spanish is a fun language. It is a language for singing, playing and vacation time!”

I think singing is a great tool for them to learn and for us to have fun too (after all, whatever tool we choose, we have to repeat things over and over again, so, it’d better be fun for us too :))

As for Spanish resources, Pocoyo is great! You can find him in many languages.


13 gweipo July 5, 2010 at 3:12 am

Dutch is the step-child in our household, again since constantly travelling dad speaks it, and my children have to deal with Chinese at school (neither of us speak Chinese, although I’m learning) and English at home. They’re with their grandparents now getting some Dutch immersion for a couple of weeks.
We could make them go to Dutch school on a Wednesday afternoon here, but we figured that on the scale of things it’s a language that’s easy enough to pick up as and when they need it.
My daughter told me today that she’s understanding everything, but when she wants to speak Dutch, Chinese comes out.


14 daniela beck July 5, 2010 at 11:06 pm

I know what you talking about I am now bilingual….English and German…I do some French and some Spanish and Italian…you know what I can pick up myself…colors, number up to 10-20…some days I feel I can even sport a WHOLE sentence…(ouvre la port or estoy aqui), but I wanna have fun and dont kill kids with multilingualism…even when people look at me like I am nuts throwing as a single parent all those around….I dont care i have seen how much it opens your own horizon if you make sure you get exposed to many things not just one language or thing early on…i do books (hoping for CDs and DVDs esp. movies)from the library in more specific and seldom used languages I have very little own knowledge like chinese(my son likes the show Ni-Hao so much so I learnt some words this hard languge I have bad hearing with intonation but it is magic sounds for them both,my kids are 3,5 and 2 now, given no writing lol…I would do russian,japanese and arabic on top of that for the kalligraphy alone….LOVE writing in those for sure!), keep up with whatever you are compfy with and the kids and let those nay sayers to themselves…i get heat from the social services they say my son is getting handicapped by me talking in English all the time, guess what no such thing, he chose not to speak to them… cant make him hello you know…he does understand them certainly sinc ehe syas words at home and granted he is not speaking in whole sentences….but I think it runs in the family on both sides the boy talk later with no issues whatsoever so i dont let anyone get to me they dont know my children like I do,trust me.


15 C... July 8, 2010 at 5:28 am

I never taught my son Spanish. He only speaks English. Spanish is my native language but it was easier to speak English my ex-husband then husband and his family only speaks English. My mother discouraged me to teach him Spanish as well to avoid discrimination. I live in the South/U.S. often times it is frowned upon to be heard speaking Spanish and I’ve even heard people say, speak English this is America, which I think is a terrible attitude to have.


16 Maria T. February 6, 2011 at 4:33 am

Alice, I commend you for giving your children the gift of trilingualism. It’s a tough job to keep up with it, but it will pay off eventually. Hang in there.

We live in the US but decided to immerse my son in Spanish from birth. He is now 3 and picking up English very easily.

I’ve used many reasources throughout, but lately, you tube and many of the Apps for the iPhone/iPad have been fantastic. We watch plaza sésamo on you tube, videos about the vowels, etc. And he’s now learning to read a bit through a great app. We, of course speak to him in Spanish, sing, watch pocoyo (he used to love pocoyo) now watches Go Diego Go in Spanish and Diego teaches him a bit of English. My son loves books too and I’ve been reading to him some a bit more advanced and he loves them. My husband has a difficult time pronouncing all words just right, but my son doesn’t mind and helps him out too. As I think of additional resources, I’ll be happy to share. Best!!


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