Bilingual Baby - Learning Spanish as 2nd Language

July 23, 2013

Bilingual Baby - Learning Spanish as a 2nd Language

Is raising a bilingual child or growing up bilingual or trilingual at home possible for monolingual parents who want their child to learn a second or third language

Don't miss our 3 part series on how to raise a multilingual child with our best tips.



Teaching infants and toddlers a second language is much easier than learning as an adult because the brain is wired to learn langauges then. I think most miss the hidden opportunity of starting early in the womb as soon as the fetus can hear, as that is when it all starts.

This first video  shows our Mozart at 4 days old learning Spanish from her father, again at 18 months one very early morning on a summer vacation at a Santa Barbara ranch, reading Spanish at 7 in Spain and today at 12 ( in Asia).

”One free lunch in the world is to learn another language in early childhood.” Pinker - MIT Linguist

Birth_announcement baby photo of Mozart


Despite being raised as a trilingual from birth, Mozart was always a very verbal kid and began bilingual talking at 6 months, ( and walking) spoke 200 words before a year and knew 50 songs before 2 ( all 3 languages) when I stopped  counting. Surprising to us, her Spanish was even stronger than her English at first. One of her first words was "biblioteca" ( library).

I want monolingual parents to know that there are opportunites everywhere to help and my husband had very limited Spanish (he'd mostly learned in adulthood for a trip to Europe). We didn't really know this could be done, until we did it. YES! Monolingual parents can raise a fluent multilingual kid.

Babies learning languages means lots of books, reading, singing and conversations with native speakers

"Babies are wired for language. The earlier they're introduced to a second language, the easier it will be for them to pick it up. When these children get to school age, they tend to have superior reading and writing skills in both languages, as well as better analytical and academic skills" Dr. Steiner M.D.

We purposely began teaching our baby Spanish, Mandarin and English when she was still in the womb in 2000 ( even though science is only just now proving this logical conclusion).

We each read the same  book to her daily ( his in Spanish) and it was obvious well before 5 months pregnant that she was excited by the Spanish sounds she heard less often and mostly from a male voice.

Langauge learning begins in the womb- Here I am very pregnant in my garden

In fact, we used it to get a better look at her ultra sound when we wanted to know what her sex was around 5 months. She always did happy kicks at the sound of Spanish and that trick allowed us to see that she was a girl ( as she was first sitting in a position where the doctors could not tell).

"These little ones had been listening to their mother's voice in the womb, and particularly her vowels for ten weeks. The mother has first dibs on influencing the child's brain." Patricia Kuhl


An important key is to start language learning as early as possible, but also to keep it up for many years as kids can lose languages ( if not used) as quickly as they pick them up. I can't tell you how many kids I have seen who talked pretty good Spanish at 3, but had totally lost it by 5. I've even known kids who lost their native tongues at 12 because they moved to an area where it was not spoken.

It does become harder once they are in school and exposed to the dominant language more as the natural tendency is to go with the dominant language and drop the minority language. The parents that do best are ones that make sure the child is always talking back in Spanish or the minority language, not just understanding it and answering back in English.


Travel and language immersion where the language is dominant is a great help for sure, especially for monolingual parents.  BUT it will only be a help if this is your goal and you are consistent and focused on language. There are millions of expats and travelers living for years or decades in foreign lands who never learn another language ( or very, very little of it).

Language immersion won't work unless YOU work it and make it a priority. I have known a ton of fluent native speakers who are biligual or more, but failed to raise their children as bilinguals, even when they wanted to.

Mozart was already very fluent in Spanish before we started to travel outside of California when she was 5, but time in a school in Spain and an all Spanish environment helped greatly with her reading and writing. You can find ways to immerse in Spanish while in America, but it takes some effort.

Raising a fluent multilingual child
who speaks, reads and writes 3 languages and plays 2 instruments is MUCH different than imagining this before they are born. Truthfully, these were great aspirations of my youth, ( giving languages,travel,books and music to my future child)  but like most things in parenting, the flesh and blood reality can be a rude awakening.

This is a long term commitment and will take daily work on it for many years..... BUT absolutely worth it. Life will throw you some curve balls, but just keep that focus until complete.

Spanish is a heritage language for us because Mozart's great grandmother came from Spain and her grandparents on her father's side only spoke Spanish until they went to school. The tendency in the fifties was to assimilate, so they did not ever speak Spanish in the home and their children did not learn it except a little exposure when around their grandmother.

Learning languages as a kid - opens the world for a child and helps them be true global citizens

Bilingual babies were lost that generation and the family flow turned monolingual English, but we are grateful we pick it up again as this allows Mozart to have a much deeper connection to her Spanish roots and understanding the culture as part of her. She feels as connected to Spain and Europe as she does America and California.

And she will be able to pass on the Spanish and Chinese to her children and generations to come because she has learned first hand the advantages of being a multilingual global citizen and the responsibility to pass this gift on.

This post is part of the Multilingual Kids Blogging Carnival for July about hidden opportunities.

Are you raising a multilingual child or want to? Any questions?

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We had and still have similar aspirations for our children, but life threw us a big curve ball when our first child was born prematurely and had some developmental issues. When her speech abilities were behind those of her peers, her pediatrician was quick to blame the multilingual environment we provided for her since in utero. We then took it down a notch, and only spoke 2 languages to her and exposed her occasionally to the sounds of 2 more, from different language families. But it was nerve wrecking to go against the advice of doctors and therapists and not switch completely to a monolingual environment. It took a lot of work, on our part and several therapists, but at 33 months old she was speaking almost on par with kids her age, but in 2 languages! She always had great comprehension skills, but her expressive language level was and perhaps still is a bit behind. Before we set out on our travels, we even got a formal diagnosis of CAS (childhood apraxia of speech) which was quite unsettling at the time. But we kept having faith in her and in us and I am no longer worried or doubting she will be fluent in several languages one day. The hard work will continue, undoubtedly, but with perseverance and faith anything is possible.

The point of my sharing the above is that even for parents who are not as lucky as you have been to be blessed with a gifted child, even if the child exhibits some speech delays at first, it is indeed possible to catch up. But, in my humble opinion, I do not advise any parent who may face a speech delay issue with his/her child to think they can relax and wait to see if the kid has the "Einstein syndrome" and may just start speaking one (or more) language(s) all of a sudden at 4. It takes awareness and a lot of work and professional help may be required, esp if the problem proves to be neurological in nature.

As multilingual parents, we took it for granted our kids will be multilingual. But we frankly never ever imagined the hard work and commitment it would require. There have been days when I wanted to give up. But then I wondered if our kids will ever forgive us for capitulating when things got tough. So, we started over the next day ...

In response to your question, one thing I am always interested in learning about is what specific resources (books, workbooks, videos) you found most helpful. Also, it would be interested to hear directly (in the form of a post) from Mozart how did she see/enjoy/struggle on her journey to multilingualism.

Thanks for the inspiration and advice you share.

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Thanks so much Violeta for your (always interesting and informative) comment and for sharing your experience.

Good for you for surmounting all the challenges and sharing some of your trials along the way!

Yes, life does indeed throw curve balls into this process ( my daughter also had some extreme neurological problems from birth trauma and much of her first year was spent with top doctors and physical therapists as she was considered failure to thrive, and had a feeding problem, sensory processing problems and in fact we are still dealing with some of those issues as she is still not using her tongue correctly we just discovered so it turns out quite miraculous that she can speak Chinese so well with her tongue and jaw issues from birth trauma). Now we are back to therapy and I will write more about this soon as we also found out many/most kids today are not getting correct jaw growth.

So I soooo understand those kind of complications and your struggles. Also I was always in awe of all the languages you wanted to start from birth...( I think you started out wanting to do 7 since you both speak many languages as parents) since I knew how challenging it was for us as monolinguals to do it with 3 languages from birth.

Sometimes we parents have to adapt and change plans ( and why we dropped Chinese for a while ..many years...and my husband had to give up doing the one parent- one child mode of teaching her when her Spanish so out performed him by 2 1/2 that it was getting in the way of their relationship.

We did not run into any language delays, but it is VERY common I think when raising multilingual kids...or at least in my experience meeting such families..I have found it common. I actually expected Mozart to talk was shocked that she was an early talker and walker.

It is so hard in parenting to know what is the best choice ( and we have often gone against doctor or expert advice) as each child and family is so different.

Thsnks for contributing and your great ideas for future posts!

I am curious to know how things were the same or different with your second child and how what you learned the with the first changed what you did with the 2nd.

You are an amazing woman, so I am sure your children will both do wonderfully!

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Also I want to make sure everyone realizes that one does not have to be gifted to be bilingual or multilingual. Many people around the world at all levels learn more than one language growing up if it is part of the culture and needed.

Also, whether a baby talks early or late, also doesn't necessarily have any impact on intellectual giftedness as there are many highly gifted ( like Einstein) who speak late.

I had a boyfriend long ago who is a brilliant surgeon in NYC and he did not talk at all until 3. Sometimes there are issues and sometimes it is just normal for certain kids.

Every child has such a different and unique track...and there is such a huge range under "normal".

I suspect Violeta that your child/ren are gifted because I think you are and the apple doesn't fall far from the tree and this tends to run in families ( weather they talk or walk or read early or late or what ever).

Much of Mozarts milestones and accomplishments are very different than either side of our family..( ie no 6 month walker/talkers) .kids always lead you on an adventure...but doing well in school or tests or reading early, being good at math etc,etc is standard on both sides of our family for generations and including aunts, uncles, cousins.

I think that tendency tends to run in families from both genetics and the nurturing choices we make ( ie love of books, learning etc that we pass on from birth).

Science shows that kids who do not get the love and educating stimulation ( even just talking and reading to babies and toddlers) are at a huge disadvantage.

Partly I write about our language learning process with her as there are few writing about it past early childhood and I think that is an important perspective.

When I was first doing it, I wish I could have read more of those who were successful with it at 12 and beyond.

It is an up and down road for sure!

Stephanie @InCultureParent

Thanks for sharing your story. I love reading about multilingual journeys over time and what a great accomplishment to raise a trilingual daughter from largely monolingual parents! It was interesting also to read Violet's comments as our situation was similar. We assumed our kids would grow up trilingual but suspected the third language could shift depending on where we lived (home languages are Arabic/English and our oldest was born in Germany; we later moved to the US and started Spanish.) However, our oldest was diagnosed with dyspraxia (I believe similar to apraxia) and we were told to drop Arabic by therapists, specialists in speech therapy even! We luckily knew better and persisted with both languages. She also saw a lot of therapists when she was 2-3 years old for stuff related to dyspraxia. Overall she was very behind verbally and also with some motor skills. During that time, so much of our energy went into all her therapy and trilingual language goals were very much secondary. Arabic (from her dad) stayed constant however. We ended up starting Spanish when she was 5 and many of those struggles were behind us. We still pour tons of work and resources into raising trilingual kids. It is not easy, in the US at least. They are not fluent in all 3 yet but I am confident they will be one day!

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Thanks so much Stephanie for your kind words and comment! I can so relate to your comment, "so much of our energy went into all her therapy and trilingual language goals were very much secondary" and so happy that you shared that.

I am so sorry to hear about your struggles and Violeta's ..always heartbreaking when we as parents must deal with extra health challenges with our kids.

Amazing you both have still managed and quite the testimony!

I don't talk about it much ( and perhaps I should in another post) but we too had some very serious neurological problems...ours started from the very, very difficult, long, bone on bone back labor and forceps.

We were very pro-active parents and did everything we could with M.D.'s, therapists and every alternative specialist we could find. We just found out we are still dealing with some of the core problems and will be writing more about that to help others.

Interestingly, the "gifted" community seems to have a high amount of quirks and neurological problems ( which most people don't realize)."Twice exceptional" is also common.

One thing we have learned the hard way, is how much harder it is to learn a language later ( because we had to drop Chinese for a while as it just became too much).

My daughter remembers no effort in obtaining Spanish from birth,( her parents do!) but since she doesn't remember her baby/todder experience of Mandarin....she clearly has seen/knows the difficulties of becoming literate/fluent in a hard language like Chinese starting back at 9!


Very comforting to read Stephanie's story. Part of the burden we had to carry was actually related to not having friends dealing with the same issue. If I could have a penny for each time friends and family thought I am exaggerating and over-worrying about my daughter's speech delay, I would be rich (oh well, not really, but you get the idea). Yes, Jeanne, I think it will be very encoraging to hear about the struggles you faced and are still facing when dealing with neurological issues. When I look at your family picture and read about your accomplishments and adventures, I would never guess you had to deal with surmounting neurological challenges. A developmental speech delay is different than a neurological speech delay and if the problem is not identified early and not hit hard with therapy, it can have lifelong effects in more areas than speech. But again part of the trouble is lack of awareness and support. It can be a very lonely journey.

To answer your question about how things were with my second child, it is too early to tell if he would face similar or different struggles, but so far it looks like he would not. He was born on time, quickly, with almost no medical intervention, pretty much a dream delivery. He has been hitting all milestones perfectly fine. When I watch him and compare to my daughter at the same age, my eyes fill with teas because only now I understand how "behind" was some of her development. As far as multilingual environment, we exposed him to 2 languages and a lot less occasional use of other ones. But being a second child, by default and necessity, he got a lot less attention than his sister. With all the struggles we faced first time, I feel that his sister was still ahead of him in speech (but he is a boy and they speak later anyhow). We shall see, but I hope both of them will grow loving languages at least as much as their mother :-)

One last thing I want to mention from our experience is that all the difficulties my daughter faced seems to have resulted in a number of tangential benefits. Maybe it is personality, or maybe it is genes, but she exhibits traits of intelligence and determination way above peers her age. I am convinced a big part of that is due to her struggles. I think she figured out early on she was different and that was a good thing because she had to find different ways to communicate and socialize and in a strange way, she always excelled at those.

Good luck to all the parents out there wanting to give the gift the language(s) to their children. What a great job and honor we have!


I feel very positive letting my children learn Spanish as a second language. I think having knowledge in a different language is a very plus point, which will help their career brighten much better in the future. I appreciate all parents to learn not only Spanish but also any other language as a second one for better sake. Thanks.

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