Dímelo en Español. No Seriously, en Español

We have arrived. If I let her, she would only speak to me in English. It would be so easy right now for us to slide into a pattern where I speak to her in Spanish and she speaks to me in English. That would be a move toward passive bilingualism, where she understands the target language perfectly well, but can’t easily produce it.

Until now I’ve been able to employ gentle tactics in our conversations to switch her over to Spanish. But those don’t always work anymore. Here’s how things have changedwhat I used to do versus what I’ve recently started doingand some of the questions I still have for myself.

If you’re not into charts and the nitty-gritty of our experience, here’s an audio clip where I use a few different methods to get her to switch from English to Spanish.

Language Observation How I Responded in the Past How I Respond Now ( She’s nearly 4 years old) Thoughts
When she says a quick phrase to me in English. I used to just repeat the Spanish equivalent of that phrase. She would nearly always repeat my Spanish back to me. Now I have to ask her how that’s said in Spanish (Y esto, ¿como se dice en español?). If I echo the English phrases she’s saying back to her in Spanish, she hears me, but often won’t repeat unless I specifically ask her to. Every time she speaks in Spanish she’s strengthening that ability. It’s not enough for her to just hear the Spanish, she has to speak it to remain verbal in the language.
When she asks me in English to do something for her or with her. Same, when she was little, I would say to her in Spanish what she just said in English. She would repeat and then eventually switched over. Now I tell her that I’ll do what she’s asking if she can ask me to do it in Spanish. If she wants help getting dressed, or wants me to play a game with her, she has to ask me in Spanish. I don’t stand there with arms crossed waiting for a reply in Spanish. I take her by the hand and we start walking towards our activity while she talks to me in Spanish. And I give her lots of praise. It’s not a punishment, it’s a sure way to engage with mommy and get fun things out of her.
When she has lots to say and it’s all coming out in English. In conversation, I used to let her finish her thought, then reply to her in Spanish. Often, she would continue her next thought in Spanish in response to my Spanish. Now I often interrupt her. I interrupt her with “En español,” and she often quickly switches over. Sometimes when she sees me take a breath, she switches before I can ask her to. I don’t like interrupting her. I worry I’m stifling some important brain flow going on. But if I want to develop that brain flow in Spanish, I’ve got to do it. And it’s working.
When she opens her mouth and I think English is going to come out. If she says “Mommy?” I know English is coming. I used to answer with, “Si Jojo. Díme.” That often elicited Spanish. Now I answer with “Si, díme en español por favor” before she can even speak a word. If she says “¿Mama?” and it has a slight Spanish accent, I know she’s thinking in Spanish and Spanish is going to come out.
When she responds to my requests for Spanish by ignoring me or pretending that “bla bla bla” is Spanish. Never used to happen. If she ignores me, I let it go. If she responds with gibberish, I repeat back, “bla bla bloo bloo?” And we have a nonsensical conversation for a minute. I let it go. I take this as a sign that she’s tired and that pushing isn’t going to get any Spanish out of her. I don’t make a big deal out of it.
When she responds to my requests for Spanish by saying she doesn’t remember the Spanish words. Never used to happen. She remembers, but she’s been in English mode (at a friend’s house or alone with Daddy all day) and she can’t make the switch. I usually start saying the Spanish word that she’s missing, and she finishes it. But that started to become a crutch. So now I try to get her to remember on her own first. Half the time the word comes to her without me helping her.
When she tells me she just doesn’t want to tell me in Spanish. Never used to happen. I let it go, but I remind her of her trip to Costa Rica last summer and her friends who only speak Spanish. I remind her of our upcoming trip to Spain and how she’s going to need her Spanish. I remind her that her teachers need her to help them with Spanish at school. I never push her to switch to Spanish if she resists. But this type of conversation usually results in more questions from her about our travels and her Spanish-speaking friends. And whether those questions are in English or Spanish doesn’t matter. She’s giving the value of her Spanish abilities serious consideration.


  1. vgraulty

    I am impressed by your determination. You are working hard to help Jojo become truly bilingual. As long as you are patient and gentle, she’ll be feeling positive and will go along. I am also curious about the impact of being bilingual on brain and language development. I can research this. The chart was interesting; it shows her growing in non-language ways too!

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