Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Profile: Boca Beth's family learning English and Spanish in the US

This week's profile of children growing up with more than one language comes from teacher and entrepreneur Beth Butler, aka Boca Beth. I think you'll find her situation particularly interesting, as she speaks as a mother who frankly admits that she wishes she had done things differently when her children were younger. Beth is also a non-native speaker of the language she teaches (Spanish) and has a monolingual spouse--very similar to quite a few readers of this blog!

What is your language background and history? I took 8 years of Spanish as a second language, lived in Chile and Mexico as a summer exchange student, and was married to a Latino man for almost 7 years. I have enjoyed Spanish as my second language, being a conversational and literate bilingual person, for more than 30 years.

What languages are you exposing your children to, and how? My three children (18, 16, and 8) are all bilingual at varying degrees. Both boys (the older children with the Latino heritage) have been Spanish student of the year in Middle and High School levels and they understand a lot in Spanish, but to get them to verbalize is difficult, even living in Florida. My new husband is monolingual in English so we speak mainly English around the house, with post-it notes up reminding us all to “Habla Español”! It’s easy to default to English when it is still the majority language in our home, schools, and community.

Why do you want your children to learn more than one language? All three of my children understand the respect needed for other cultures and languages and experience the media attention given to these topics. They very much dislike the ‘English-only’ mentality that some people still have the nerve to hold on to and speak about. I find that my children, surrounded by a feeling of acceptance of all races, cultures and languages, have been given a true jumpstart on not only learning another world language but also on being prepared for a very global economy.

How well do your children understand, speak, read, and write the second language? What do they think about it? Do they have a preference for certain languages in certain situations and with certain speakers? How has this evolved as the children grow up? Our 18-year-old is the most resistant due to the fact that his Latino dad really never emphasized the Spanish in our home while we were married; hence our son did not have the exposure my other two children had at a young age. By the time I remarried and the kids heard Spanish A LOT daily, our eldest had really moved on mentally to another stage in language acquisition. Our middle son and young daughter both understand tons, speak quite a bit, and read to levels of getting by in Spanish.

How have you been able to expose your children to the culture(s) where the second language is spoken? The Travel Channel and momentos and slides from my life in Chile and Mexico have been the only exposure to date for our children to experience Spanish and the culture combined. My former in-laws still have many celebrations to which the boys are invited which allow them to experience some of the native Latin American fiestas, and our neighbor from Ecuador is also a great connection to the culture of his country. We intend to travel next summer to a Latin American country for one week of immersion with our two youngest.

What challenges have occurred as you teach your children two world languages? The ability to default to English has been the biggest challenge. With a monolingual spouse, it’s more convenient to speak English even though he himself asks to learn more Spanish by hearing it more around the home.

What resources have been most useful to you? What, on the other hand, has not been useful? Since I have my own language learning program for young children, this has been the greatest asset for my two youngest children. I started the Boca Beth Program almost 6 years ago, so both of them have had lots of exposure to the bilingual presentation we support. We have not found the CDs for only auditory learning (Pimsleur) to be helpful at this point for my husband nor for the kids.

What do you think parents, caretakers, teachers, and/or researchers need to know about teaching a second language to children? What do you wish you had known when you started? What, if anything, would you do differently now? Today’s parents need to really understand that earlier is better when it comes to introducing a new language to young children. The myths surrounding language learning need to go away so that parents can prepare their children for this very global society in which we live. I wish I had not listened to my first husband and had given our two boys a stronger foundation on Spanish and English in our home. I would have presented every item possible to those babies in English followed by the Spanish word for it. Ahhh, hindsight 20/20!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Answer your own question now--what did I not ask about that you want to comment on? Immersion is truly not the reality of the majority of homes and classrooms across the United States (or any country for that matter). Most of us live in a home or go to a classroom where only one language is spoken fluently. That is why the bilingual approach is the reality of today’s approach to introducing new world languages to young children. The experts agree that it is just as easy to introduce two words for one item as it is to introduce only one. That is why we at Boca Beth chose the true bilingual presentation of Spanish and English for parents and teachers to use with their children. The baby, toddler, and preschool age child is still learning his native language. Experts agree that you should continue that language acquisition while adding in the new language introduction right alongside it. Make the learning interactive and fun, and the repetition that is so necessary for long term retention will easily follow. Click here to read many articles I have written and published on this topic.

Beth, thank you so much for your candor and willingness to share your experiences! As the wife of a monolingual man myself, I'm also curious to hear more about how your second husband reacted to the idea of a bilingual household. And was hearing you speak Spanish around the house enough to teach him the basics, or has he done any formal study as well besides the Pimsleur CDs?


  1. Great interview! Boca Beth is a welcomed friend in our house.

    I'm always interested in hearing how English-speakers became fluent in Spanish (or any other language.) Their experiences help to encourage me.

  2. My wife and I started teaching our little boy Spanish and Chinese when he was born. Both of us were born here in the U.S. and learned these other languages from traveling.

    The thing that I've found most helpful in learning another language is learning the phrases that you'll use everyday. Since you'll never use the rest don't even worry about them. You'll learn the ones you use everyday pretty quickly since you repeat them frequently.

    Some very common phrases that you'll hear natives using all the time is found on a Spanish to English converter site. It has the phrases you need expressed by natives in Spanish and English. It works great!

    Good luck to everyone!

  3. Speaking of familiarizing yourself with everyday phrases, isn't it amazing how the version of the foreign language you learned in school in order to write academic papers is SO far removed from what you try to say on a daily basis to a young child?!

    I mean, before my nephew came along I could explicate a passage from a nouveau roman and sound like I knew what I was talking about--I could trace the evolution of French from Latin to now--I could explain how the past participle needs to agree in gender and number with the preceding direct object in the passe compose--but I didn't know any nursery rhymes, hadn't a clue how to refer to objects like a bouncy chair or the parts of a playground, and had a hard time deciphering the lyrics of French kids' songs actually sung by real French children.

  4. Sarah - so true! I could write research papers in Spanish, but using everyday Spanish was quite challenging at first.