My bilingual toddler's Spanish vocabulary is better than mine. What next?

By Guest Contributor Elisa Hernandez

Starting our bilingual parenting journey, my partner and I were less than confident about how successful we would be - even though we are Spanish-speaking parents. I had no doubts about my partner’s Spanish vocabulary or capabilities (he grew up reading, writing, and now regularly uses his Spanish in professional settings). I was more concerned about mine - I always considered my Spanish vocabulary conversational at best, centering around daily life. What would happen when my bilingual toddler's Spanish vocabulary surpassed mine? Well, I find myself confronting this question now. Here, I share the (ongoing) reflections that have helped me, along with tactics and resources I am using in hopes they can be useful for you too! 

My bilingual Spanish-English background 

Thinking now about my “credentials,” my lack of confidence strikes me as strange. I grew up speaking Spanish, minored in Spanish in college, and in professional settings translated documents and conducted presentations in Spanish. Yet, I always felt my Spanish was limited. I could engage in conversations about household tasks, food, and polite niceties. As soon as the conversations shifted to current events, deep reflections on my lived experiences, or explaining my perspective, I quickly switched to English or stumbled my way through distilling my ideas into the most basic terms. With time and preparation, I could confidently express myself - unfortunately, I can’t write an essay to communicate with my child. 

The start of our bilingual journey was the easy part 

Infancy and the toddler years were relatively easy (at least where language is concerned). I could narrate what I was doing, label things in our surroundings, communicate praise, and set appropriate limits. Even reading those early books was straightforward – colors, shapes, animals, seasons, etc. 

I encountered the first hurdle in my bilingual parenting when the books started getting more complex. I was encountering words I didn’t recognize, complicated conjugations, and idioms that were difficult to decipher. 

The next hurdle came when my son would return home from school (a Spanish immersion preschool) naming objects or concepts that took me an extra moment to grasp; this was also around the time when he started correcting my conjugation in real time. It was a sobering realization that my four-year-old had as equal a mastery of the Spanish language as I did. 

My 4-year-old has equal mastery of Spanish as me; now what? 

I dreamed of the conversations I would have with my child about emotion regulation, morality, living in community, valuing and respecting others regardless of their differences, taking care of our resources on earth, living a meaningful life – I am a psychologist after all. 

The closer we get to an age where these conversations are possible, the more the reality is dawning on me that I do not have the language skills to have those conversations in Spanish with the same quality and depth that I would be able to in English. 

I feel conflicted about having to switch to English to have these conversations, and I find myself yearning for the option of having them in Spanish. Further still, I desperately want my child to have the option of having these deep conversations in Spanish; I want him to have the fluency in both languages that I currently lack. I worry that his language development will be stunted because my language is limited. 

I am a bilingual parent - not a Spanish parent 

Even as these anxieties swirl through my mind about whether I am doing “enough” to support his language development and whether my language skills are “good enough,” I am still his preferred storyteller and conversation partner. I remind myself of the bi in bilingual and give myself grace when I have to explain something in English. 

But I am also leaning into the opportunity to improve my skills and to learn along with my child. If any of you feel like you’ve hit a wall in your language abilities, I wanted to share a little of what I am doing to continue developing my grasp of the language I want to foster in my home.

6 things to become a better bilingual partner to my kids 

  1. Find a good translation app – To use in those moments when you can’t think of the word in the target language or your child comes to you with an unfamiliar word. It’s been a lifesaver. I use SpanishDict and love that it tells you colloquial definitions and the countries where a particular term is used. This was especially useful when my child’s Colombian teachers would use vocabulary that my Mexican and Central American parents would never use. 

  2. Watch shows/movies in the target language – As much as it pains me to watch childhood classics in Spanish instead of English (it just messes with my nostalgia, especially with the songs), he understands them better in Spanish, and I can use it as an opportunity to learn some new vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. With movies set in Spanish-speaking countries, like Coco, Encanto, and Pachamama, it adds a special connection to the characters and story. 

  3. Read, read, read – I’m guilty of mispronouncing and having to sound out words in picture books, but I am still committed to trying. This is one of the reasons I love Habbi Habbi - since their magical Wand / audio helps anyone from non-native speakers to Spanish speakers like myself! I also found that if I stretch myself and start reading chapter books aloud in Spanish, I can get more exposure to vocabulary, sentence structure, and grammar that will better keep pace with what my child will be learning at school. It’s taxing and tiring, but it does help me improve my vocabulary. 

  4. Expose your child to other language models – Family, friends, teachers, community members, everyone and anyone who can model that language can be as diverse as the people who speak it. An added bonus is that you and your child will have conversations about topics and interests that you may know very little about – knitting, geology, music, rock climbing, the possibilities are endless.

  5. Practice – Look for a local book club, speaker series, library program, or language conversational group to practice your target language. Perhaps there are other parents at your child’s school or daycare who would be interested in practicing over coffee, zoom, or happy hour. 

  6. Find community – Find people who will provide support, validation, and understanding as you continue on your bilingual parenting journey. We all need cheerleaders who will celebrate our successes and will be there to help us up when we feel defeated. I have joined facebook groups, listened to podcasts (Entre Dos Podcast; they have a facebook group too), and sought out extracurricular activities led in Spanish at my local library and private businesses.
I’d love to hear what you all are doing to support your own language development as you foster bilingualism (or multilingualism) in your home.

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About Elisa: 

Elisa Hernandez, Ph.D. | I am the parent of an opinionated, compassionate, and energetic five year old. Professionally, I am a counseling psychologist specializing in college mental health, first generation college students, and identity development. In my personal life, I love board games, reading dystopian novels, going on adventures, and hiking. 

More from Habbi Habbi

We have lots more (fun stuff!) to share here at Habbi Habbi. Check out our free printables, tips for incorporating language learning at home, and of course our magical Reading Wand, books, puzzles & flashcards. Available in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. Coming soon in French, Korean, and Hindi! We hope you enjoy! ❤️ H&AL