7 Tips for parents who do not speak the immersion language

First of all, I commend you for choosing dual language instruction.  Your child will learn both languages and will learn content in both languages, even though you do not use the second language a lot at home.  Perhaps the best way to understand how this happens is to reference Jim Cummins’ (1981) interdependence hypothesis that follows, “To the extent that instruction in Lx (let’s say English for our purpose) is effective in promoting proficiency in Lx, transfer of this proficiency to Ly (let’s say Spanish) will occur provided there is adequate exposure to Ly (either in school or environment) and adequate motivation to learn Ly…In other words, although the surface aspects (e.g., pronunciation, fluency, etc.) of different languages are clearly separate, there is an underlying cognitive/academic proficiency that is common across languages.  This common underlying proficiency makes possible the transfer of cognitive/academic or literacy-related proficiency from one language to another” (p.  68).  Basically, learning is learning, as long as learners are exposed to enough of both languages.  Here’s the upshot: In dual language immersion programs, the structure of the program ensures that students receive enough exposure in each language (50/50) for this transfer to happen.

  ImageNow I firmly believe that children can out-perform the ACTFL language proficiency levels set for each grade (see the Ventana Vista Elementary Spanish Immersion webpage for these language levels https://sites.google.com/a/cfsd16.org/spanish-immersion/useful-links ) if the target language is also used at home.  Below I give 7 tips for parents who are also learning the immersion language for using that language at home with their children and for making home an extension of the immersion classroom.

  1. You don’t need to know everything!  In fact, you don’t even need to know what most would consider the basics.  When learned naturally, languages are not learned with contrived dialogues such as, “Hi, how are you? I am well, thank you. And you?”  What is important to learn and use at home is what the students are expected to know and use in the classroom.  There are important verbs that can be used in isolation, but in appropriate contexts at home: Quiero (I want), puedo (I can or Can I?) and (necesito (I need) etc. What I mean by using these in isolation is that they can be used as the only Spanish word in the sentence, such as “Quiero chocolate milk for supper” or “Puedo be excused from the table?”  This leads into tip #2


    The moment when you start to think in…

  2. Encourage and model code-switching at home.  This can be done fairly easily by parents who are learning the language along with their children.  Code-switching is the mixing of two languages within a conversation and can happen at the sentence or even phrasal level: Yo quiero that you brush you dientes now.  Por favor, give your sister the lápizNecesito a hug before you go to la escuela.  Using words in a code-mixed sentence can help children and adults bridge fluency in the 2nd language and cut down on the frustration of not being able to communicate in the target language.  No worries, code-switching is a healthy and helpful phenomena.
  3. Sing, dance and play!  The immersion teachers will use lots of songs at school to teach all sorts of content.  Have your children teach you the songs.  Put on concerts and introduce new songs from cds in Spanish, Internet sites, or the radio.  Music taps into a different part of the brain and can be incredibly powerful for long-lasting language and content learning.   Exposing your children to music in other languages at home also sends an important message to your children that other languages are important, valued in your house and part of the new normal.
  4. Continue to be a learner yourself.  It is good for your children to observe your learning strategies, to see that it doesn’t come naturally to you either, and that you all are in the same boat.  Stay on top of what they are learning at school and try to be one step ahead of them.  This serves two purpose: 1) It helps in guiding your own learning and 2) It makes It possible for you to advance your children’s learning at home.  This is known in the research by two names: Vygotsky (1978) called this the Zone of Proximal Development and Krashen (1985) referred to it as the I + 1.  Both are similar and posit that learners stretch their learning when they are surrounded by content that is comprehensible to them plus content that is one level above what they already know.  When they are in this zone of proximal development, they will grow in knowledge to reach the next level if they are provided with enough scaffolding or help, and that’s where you come in.
  5. Develop several conversation topics that you can learn together and that become part of everyday after school dialogue.  Here are a few in Spanish:
  • ¿Qué color sacaste hoy? (What color did you get today?-referring to the color behavior chart that many teachers use.  You can extend this by offering answers, ¿Verde? ¿Azul? ¿Morado?  Be ok with one-word answers.)
  • ¿Con quién jugaste hoy? (Whom did you play with today?)
  • ¿Qué comiste hoy? (What did you eat today?)

vi. Continue reading and writing with your children in English.  It may seem counterintuitive, but as I state above, literacy skills transfer from one language to another.  The stronger our children are in reading and writing in English, the stronger their literacy skills will become in Spanish.

vii. Finally, rely on other parents for help.  This blog is made up of a community of immersion parents.  Some have vast knowledge in other languages and some are just starting to learn.  Play dates and the sharing of tips, ideas, and resources are great ways to provide 2nd language support at home and for feeling confident that you are doing all you can for your child’s language and content learning.  Pues, the fact that you are leyendo this post, significa that you are doing just that.  ¡Felicidades!  


Cummins, J. (2008). Teaching for transfer: Challenging the two solitudes assumption in bilingual education. In Encyclopedia of language and education (pp. 1528-1538). Springer US.

Krashen, S. D. (1985). The input hypothesis: Issues and implications (Vol. 1, p. 985). London: Longman.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Interaction between learning and development. Readings on the development of children, 34-41.


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