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  • The Bilingual Formula – How to Make Fluency Happen

People often ask me how I - a non-native speaker of Spanish -  am managing to raise bilingual children.  ​The answer, though not easy, is really rather simple:


Exposure + Need = Fluency

​Exposure to the language, plus the need to speak the language, equals a child who can understand and use the language!​

​While not difficult, it is far from ​easy! Let's take a look at each of these variables.


Exposure is how much input your children are receiving in the minority language.

​When we talk about exposure, we’re talking about both quality and quantity.

What is Quality Exposure?

Quality language exposure happens when we are face-to-face, eye-to-eye, hand-to-hand with our littles. The language that floats between us as we sing a silly song, observe the beauty of a ladybug, or construct a playdough house. And of course, the beauty of sharing a good book as we snuggle on the couch. 

  • ​Face to Face - Whether you are changing a diaper, feeding a baby, or taking some time to stop and play with your child, intentionally speak to them. Narrate what the two of you are doing. Immerse them in words and language.
  • ​Read Aloud - As the saying goes "a picture book is worth a thousand words they can't understand". Reading aloud is the number one way children build vocabulary in any language. This is especially important if you are not a native speaker of your minority language as a picture book gives you correct grammar and unique vocabulary and all you have to do is read!

​If you’re littles are already understanding and beginning to speak English, chances are they will push back if you just start using a second language. They key to introducing quality language exposure in a minority language is to keep it FUN.

What is Quantity Exposure?

Quantity exposure, not surprising, is simply how much minority language input your littles are hearing. ​If you're blessed with minority-speaking family, you can set up ​weekly Skype dates with grandparents. If both you and your partner speak the minority language consider making your home a minority-language-only space.

However, if you, like me, ​don't have minority-language speaking family there are ways to get creative and make this happen. Here is where we get creative and tap into technology.

  • Screen Time - This has been a low-hanging fruit for me as my kids will do almost anything to be allowed screen time. We are a low-tech family, but if my kids are on a screen 9 out of 10 times it’s in Spanish. From shows, to movies, to apps, there are plenty of options for quantity input in your minority language.
  • Audio Books - There is no substitute for ​reading to ​your kids ​your minority language. However, that requires you each and every time! To switch reading from quality time to quantity time, purchase an audio recording of your children’s favorite books in the target language! Or, record yourself reading aloud ​in your minority language and make the recordings accessible to your kids. My daughter ​will literally listen to a book eight times in a row. When that book is in Spanish, she is getting some serious quantity input!

Those are just two of the ways I’ve used to increase exposure for my kids.

If you have other ways you’ve increased your ​children's target language exposure, let me know in the comments!

So we’ve hit on exposure. Let’s move on to need…


​​Need means your child feels the need to use their minority language.

What is Need?

When we speak of need in the context of raising bilingual children, we mean that the child feels the need to speak their minority language. Any young child exposed to any language for long enough will understand that language.

But fluency is not simply comprehension but also the ability to communicate, to produce the language ​as well. 

To be honest, this has been my number one struggle in our bilingual journey. I can not create the need in and of myself, because I speak English and my children know I do. I can’t create it within my extended family because they all speak English and my children know it. 

Here, my friends, is where we call on community and get creative. You can’t raise bilingual children in a bubble, and when you live in a [language] bubble yourself, you have got to get out and ask for help.

  • Community - Find the Spanish speakers around you! Don’t be shy to get out in your community and seek out native speakers of your target language. For us this is Spanish. I have gone to Spanish church services, connected with ESL classes, and reached out to the on-staff Spanish translator and family services coordinator at our local school. This effort has connected me to the Spanish-speaking community in our area. We have made friends, found baby-sitters, gone to birthday parties where we were the only native-English speakers. Nothing creates a felt need in a small child like having a little buddy that only speaks Spanish.
  • Create What You Wish You Had - If you wish your local library had a Spanish Storytime, approach them and ask if you can make one happen! ​W​ant a Spanish playtime in your area? Host one! When we moved from the city to a small town and lost our bilingual community, I connected with a local non-profit that works with children and began a Bilingual Storytime at their space. This connected me to other families, both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking, who were interested in raising bilingual littles. This eventually lead to starting the first bilingual preschool in ​that town that is still in existence today!

Of course we could just move to Latin America and throw our kids in school. That would create the need good and fast. But of course, that’s not feasible us, or I assume for the majority of you. And here is where some good ‘ol parental trickery comes in…

For the formula to work, need does not have to be “real”, it just needs to be “felt”. The babysitter we hired? She spoke English too. I just made sure the kids didn’t know that!

​Exposure + Need = Fluency

Although it’s simple, it’s not easy. Like any good thing, you’ve got to work for it.

I'd love to hear ways you are exposing your kids to a second language and creating the need for them to use it!

Take a second and let me know in the comments!

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Lauren Stengele

Lauren is a 4th generation Mexican-American, and 2nd generation homeschooler. She learned Spanish as a way to reclaim her heritage, and now passes it on to her three children whom she homeschools bilingually. She started Bilingual Together to provide encouragement and resources to other bilingual homeschooling families.

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