Do you know a toddler?
One of those small-but-amazing people who seem to learn with superhuman, albeit sticky-faced, ability?
Maybe you’re a parent to one (or two), or you might even be lucky enough to have a niece or nephew who fits the bill.
Who knows? The neighbor’s child, the one who was crawling last week but now practically runs the elevator in your building, might be your closest toddler connection.
Whatever relationship you have with a toddler, you’ve got to admit they’re pretty incredible.
Have you ever wondered if it’s possible to teach that special little someone you know how to speak Spanish?
Good news! It’s not only possible, it’s fairly easy (and fun)!
Toddler-hood is actually an optimal language-learning window. Studies indicate the best time to teach a second language is when a person is learning the first language, so clearly it’s a great time to introduce a second language.
Benefits of Teaching Spanish to Toddlers
A child is referred to as a toddler if he or she is between the ages of one and two years. This developmental stage makes them excellent students in general because they’re easily entertained, inquisitive, are more independent and readily imitate sounds.
So since they’re primed and ready to learn, learning a second language will be a breeze! And making Spanish that second-language choice is a good idea for a number of reasons:
- It’s the second most common language in the US. Not only will that special toddler in your life be able to communicate with a greater percentage of the population in the immediate future, you’ll also open up a world of opportunities as they grow older. They’ll have a competitive edge when it comes to seeking employment, and it’s been shown that bilinguals also have an easier time learning additional languages.
- It’s a phonetic language, meaning it’s spelled the same way it’s spoken. Learning how Spanish words look and sound is a snap for toddlers by comparison to a language that’s not phonetic, like English. Although you wouldn’t expect a kiddo at this age to match letters and sounds, it’s not too early to expose them to it while reading or pointing out environmental print.
- The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) ranks Spanish a category one on their language difficulty scale, which sets an emerging Spanish speaker up for success. This category means it’s one of the easier languages for English speakers to learn. They estimate it will take between 575-600 hours of learning to achieve Speaking Proficiency Level 3 (S3), which is a general proficiency. At this level speakers should be able to participate accurately in most social conversations. This fits right into the learning plan because with toddlers, it’s all social, isn’t it?
Teaching Toddlers Spanish, as Easy as Uno, Dos, Tres!
Yes, toddlers are set up developmentally to acquire a second language with ease, but their learning program should be constructed with age in mind. It should be filled with activities that toddlers love, such as fun (silly, even!) activities, movement, short bursts of instruction and exploration.
Be mindful of a toddler’s attention span. They won’t remain engaged for long periods of time, so change activities often and use props they can hold so they’re hands-on participants in the learning program rather than simply observers.
Paso Uno: Play!
It’s a basic truth—play encourages learning.
Think about it. When a topic is entertaining, we’re excited to learn and become involved more fully than we do when something is dull and boring. And play? It’s intrinsically fun.
Have fun with flashcards
One easy way to incorporate play is to use flashcards with pictures portraying basic objects. Buy a deck that’s already made or use a Spanish dictionary and some photos to make your own personalized set. Imagine the giggles a photo of abuela (Grandmother) or even the family gato (cat) will bring to your young learner!
Simply showing the cards and naming the people/objects is more fun than you think for a toddler, and it allows them to build a vocabulary without much effort. You can also stick them on a wall (or hide them around the house) and ask questions such as “¿Dónde está abuela?” (Where is Grandmother?) or “¿Dónde está el gato?” (Where is the cat?).
If you make doubles, you can even have the toddler match them (though you might have to show them how to do this first).
Get the wiggles out!
Finger play is a great way to let little ones wiggle and introduce Spanish in a fun way. You can consider finger play completely mobile; as long as your hands are free, you’re ready to teach, and your young companion will be eager to lean!
And sometimes toddlers need engaging distractions—after all, any two-year-old’s patience in waiting rooms or long checkout lines at the grocer’s may be taxed, but finger play can divert their attention while encouraging vocabulary acquisition.
Try out the song and finger movements with “La araña pequeñita” (“The Itsy Bitsy Spider”). Or if you have a little more space to move, try “Cabeza, hombros, rodillas, pies” (“Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”). This song involves the whole body and will give kiddos lots of opportunities to expend some of that energy!
- Spanish Playground — This website is a treasure trove of interesting ideas and resources for teaching Spanish to children. Every age group is addressed, so as your toddler grows, your lessons can grow too! There are even printable games available, so learning isn’t confined to the computer. Print off some flash cards or a game or two and take learning on the go. They’re also a great resource for more Spanish finger plays!
- Rockalingua — Toddlers also love to sing silly songs, so check out this site for some song ideas. Now the next time you’re stuck in traffic you can put your vocal skills on display. “¡Buenos días!” (Good day!) is a super simple song that even the youngest toddlers will enjoy.
Paso Dos: Move!
Movement and exploration are at the top of any toddler’s to-do list, so add a layer of Spanish language learning to activities they already consider essential. Total win-win, right?
Get in some exercise, work off some energy and learn all at once. Sounds too good to be true? It’s not—just tie the toddler’s shoelaces, grab your jackets and head outdoors!
Try the Montessori Three Period Lesson
This is a great tool for language-learning outdoors. Introduce new vocabulary, practice it, then recall. Here’s how the lessons might look:
- Point to a tree and say, “Ese es un árbol.” (That’s a tree.)
- Then use repetition to reinforce the new word with something like “¿Puedes tocar el árbol?” (Can you touch the tree?)
- Get silly, make your toddler laugh while learning, by prompting him or her to oler el árbol (sniff the tree) or cantarle al árbol (sing to the tree).
- When the child seems to have a grasp on the new word, point to the item again and ask “¿Qué es eso?” (What is that?)
- When your language learner responds appropriately, clap and say, “¡Sí! ¡Es un árbol!” (Yes! It’s a tree!)
Walk and talk
Whether the environment is rural or metropolitan, taking a child for a walk is prime vocabulary-building territory. Don’t just walk the walk—talk the talk!
Whenever you’re out and about, keep a constant stream of conversation going by using the time to identify everything in Spanish. That furry tail-wagging friend your toddler waves to isn’t just a dog—it’s un perro (a dog). And if it’s un perro blanco (a white dog), even better! Adjectives are, just like verbs and nouns, good to learn early.
Don’t forget to let the toddler participate in the conversation. Encourage speech; practicing pronunciation using an informal question-and-answer format. Keep things in the toddler’s comfort zone by asking the basics:
¿Dónde está el gato? / ¡Sí! ¡El gato está allí! (Where is the cat? / Yes! The cat is over there!)
¿De qué color es el gato? / ¡Sí! ¡El gato es negro! (What color is the cat? / Yes! The cat is black!)
Counting games and I Spy (Veo, Veo) are a few other “lessons” that work well outdoors.
Paso Tres: Immerse!
Most language lovers would agree that perhaps the best way to learn a new language is through immersion. However, for most of us, taking a toddler to live in a country where Spanish is the go-to language isn’t possible.
No worries—there’s a solution for that language bump.
Create authentic learning opportunities by setting up an immersive environment en casa (at home)!
Get them in on the action
Toddlers love to help, don’t they? They’re all about being involved, understanding the world and people around them and just being part of the action.
That’s especially true en la cocina (in the kitchen)! Take the opportunity and talk about food while you prepare a meal. It can be as easy as placing some vegetables on the table for the toddler to handle and identify.
Watch cartoons and videos together
Cartoons are also a great way to keep the language-learning fun going! Why not sit with your toddler while you laugh and learn, courtesy of the many YouTube cartoons geared for toddlers that are available. To begin, check out “Minimalitos” or “Pocoyo” in Spanish until you find a show your toddler really loves.
If you’d rather pick and choose videos, KnowingandGrowing has a YouTube channel with tons of options to engage your little one’s brain. You might start with learning colors then move on to counting. Just remember to let the attention span and interest of your little one guide you.
Immerse them with song
Don’t let those teachable moments pass you by! Songs are a great way to teach new vocabulary and increase fluency. Sing the clean up song in Spanish when you help put away toys. You can also sing the Spanish alphabet during bath time and listen to Spanish songs in the car. Opportunities are everywhere!
And since immersion can be carried on throughout the day, don’t discount the all-important bedtime routine. There’s still one last bit of the day to surround a child with Spanish, so sing the lullaby “Arrorró mi niño” (Hush my baby) and send your toddler off to Dreamland.
- Muzzy BBC — If you’re interested in a more comprehensive approach to teaching Spanish, you might try Muzzy BBC. It’s a language-learning program for young learners that encourages learning through natural immersion, teaching vocabulary and concepts in a manner similar to the way we learn our native languages.
The episodes help lay a foundation, with material building on what’s learned in previous episodes. And honestly, the characters are engaging enough that adults will enjoy watching with toddlers. Anyone who thinks animation is just for kids hasn’t seen Muzzy!
- Language Lizard — Reading is fundamental, whatever language is being learned, so teaching toddlers Spanish should include story time. This company is a stellar source for bilingual children’s books.
Now that you’ve got all the tools you’ll need, are you ready to have some fun and teach a toddler Spanish? Good!
Remember, milestones in Spanish language learning will be similar to those in English, so you should have the same kind of expectations for both language-learning endeavors.
Final bits of advice for teaching toddlers Spanish? Encourage success. Be patient. Enjoy the journey.
¡Buena suerte! (Good luck!)
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