At what age should we introduce our infant to a foreign language? My father's first language was Spanish but because my parents didn't speak much Spanish in the household I learned it as a foreign language, albeit easier than people without the exposures to it that I had. I would really like my boy to grow up speaking Spanish perfectly.

What are some strategies? Do my wife and I need to speak Spanish to each other (she speaks a little)? How will my bad accent affect his accent? What about those foreign language CDs and DVDs? Does my son just need to be immersed in a Spanish class or Spanish-speaking country? How many hours a day does a child need to hear the other language? How does this all affect his learning of English?

And preferably he'd grow up learning Mandarin and Arabic too, but that seems a bit too ambitious, especially since my wife and I don't speak those languages.

asked 28 May '11, 18:49

Guido's gravatar image

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(28 May '11, 19:29) Tammy ♦♦

Great question!

(30 May '11, 11:03) Emi

Given that one can't do a randomized, controlled trial in child-rearing, most likely all you're going to get is personal anecdotes. So here's ours.

I have a son, age 6. His mom (my wife) is an ethnic Hungarian from Romania. Since birth, we've been trying to raise him bilingual. I speak only English to him, and my wife speaks only Hungarian to him. (I understand some Hungarian but speak very little.)

Our success has been mixed. The main problem is that he just doesn't have as wide a vocabulary in Hungarian as he does in English. We live in the United States, so he gets English everywhere. He gets Hungarian only when my wife speaks to him, or when he watches videos in Hungarian or my wife reads to him in Hungarian. We don't have many videos in Hungarian, and my wife doesn't read to him anywhere near often enough.

As a result, he tends to throw English words into his Hungarian when he doesn't know the Hungarian word. Partly this is lack of vocabulary, and partly (as far as I can tell) it's laziness because the English words just spring more readily to his mind. In addition, his Hungarian accent just doesn't sound very good. For instance, he makes his Rs in Hungarian like an American English R instead of a rolled R.

Unless we happen to move to Hungary, I don't see the situation improving much. If my wife read a lot more Hungarian-language books to him, it would help. But it's always going to be hard learning a foreign language when only one parent speaks it.

I think you can be successful, but my advice would be:

  • Don't ever mix languages. If you don't know a word in Spanish, either switch to English for the whole sentence or look up the word. I tend to throw in English words when I speak Hungarian, and I feel like I probably passed this bad habit on to my son.
  • Make sure you have plenty of Spanish-language books in the house, and make sure you read them to him at least once a day, but really as often as you can.
  • As far as videos, you're probably in better shape because most DVDs in the U.S. have Spanish-language tracks. If he watches a Pixar movie in English one day, make sure the next day he watches in Spanish, even (or perhaps especially) if it's the same movie.
  • Spend a lot of time improving your Spanish. Make sure you're constantly reading books in the language, or there will come a point when your vocabulary fails you. (My wife learned spoken Hungarian from infancy, but she almost never reads in it, so her vocabulary is limited.)

Good luck! Whether or not your son learns Spanish well, my feeling is that the experience of learning to express himself in two languages will still be beneficial and help him learn other languages later in life.


answered 28 May '11, 22:50

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Asked: 28 May '11, 18:49

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Last updated: 23 Jun '11, 05:08