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Adoption Blog: Familia Means Family

Becoming Teacher to My Bilingual Children

I came to the United States from Ecuador when I was 16. I arrived on a Friday and started my junior year of high school the following Monday. The short adaptation period was not the most difficult part of this experience, however. The hardest part was that my command of English was basic at best. I knew only a few sentences to introduce myself. Since we were only supposed to be in the U.S. for two years, I needed to graduate with my class so I could start college back home with the rest of my peers. It was decided that English as a Second Language classes would delay my graduation time, so I was mainstreamed to regular classes. The first class I walked into was 11th grade English: British Literature.

The first year was incredibly difficult, but I had wonderfully patient teachers. By my senior year I was taking Advanced Placement classes and doing as well on AP exams as my classmates. I have to admit, however, that I had an advantage: English was my third language. Before I came to the U.S. I had attended a French/Spanish immersion school since preschool. Soaking up two languages day after day made learning a third one much easier. My brain was conditioned to the necessary skills for understanding, speaking, and assimilating a new language.

My experiences learning French and later English intuitively taught me what has also been supported by education research: one of the best ways to learn a new language is to be immersed in it. It is the fastest way, for sure. I think I was able to learn English so quickly because I was forced to speak it, write it, and read it in subject areas beyond English class for the whole school day. Immersion works: we've been raising our children to be bilingual, fluent in both English and Spanish, from the time they were infants and their skills in both languages are flourishing.

When it came time to select a school for my daughter, Isabel, adopted domestically, we faced a dilemma. Ideally we would have loved for her to attend an immersion school in Spanish and English so she could continue learning both languages away from home. Unfortunately, there isn't one in our town. So what to do? If we sent her to a regular school she would spend several hours a day immersed in English, becoming more proficient in it each day. The time I would spend with her in the evening at home would not be enough to teach her, in Spanish, the same concepts she learned in English during the day.

Up to that point, she had been learning all material in two languages: letters, geometric shapes, days of the week, etc. We had been very successful and I was worried that spending so many hours immersed in one language would make it harder and harder for her to continue developing her Spanish. So, after a good bit of soul-searching, talking to my husband, visiting schools, and weighing the pros and cons we decided to homeschool.
There are lots of reasons why people homeschool: the quality of the schools around them, religious reasons, children's special challenges. For us there were several benefits, but one of the biggest was allowing our children to continue to learn all subjects in two languages and to continue to be exposed to Spanish for a large portion of their day.
Of course there are advantages and disadvantages to any schooling option. We thought carefully about how we could lessen the drawbacks. For instance, we joined homeschooling groups, so the kids would interact with other children several times a week. We took a room of our house and turned it into a classroom, so the kids would have a colorful, educational, working space. We created a routine to our days, just like they would have in a regular classroom. And so far, we are having a blast.
I realize this is not feasible for every parent who wants to raise bilingual children. I am fortunate to have a job that allows me to work from home and keep my children with me during the day. There are also parents who feel intimidated by the thought of being so intimately responsible for their child's education. I was very hesitant at the beginning, as well, but my husband and I remain committed to making sure our children's language skills are strong in both of our native tongues.
But if you are hoping to raise your children to be bilingual and there are no immersion schools in your area or an immersion school is simply not plausible, I want to encourage you to consider homeschooling. It is doable! It is a lot of work, true, but there are many in-person and online homeschooling resources. You can also connect with other homeschooling parents so you won't feel alone or lost.
We plan to evaluate our decision at the end of each year. But I can tell you it is already making a difference in helping us raise our children to be bilingual.

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We’re strongly considering homeschool, too, primarily for school quality reasons. Thanks for sharing your ideas and resources!

By Thalas'shaya on Monday, November 21, 2011 at 7:14 pm.

Glad to help! It is really not as hard as you think with all that is out there, especially in the elementary years. We’ll see how it goes when the subjects get more difficult!

By Gaby on Monday, November 21, 2011 at 7:17 pm.

Just be encouraged that the amount of resources that are on line and other places is almost endless.  I have been home schooling off and on and my kids are in 5th and 6th grade and are doing well.  Way to go teaching two languages!!!

By Stanekfam on Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 5:30 pm.

Thank you, Stanekfam! I have been discovering already how much there is out there. The best part is that our state contracted with some schools online so Isabel is enrolled in an online public school and has a teacher and they send me material, etc. It’s a great deal.

By Gaby on Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 5:54 pm.

Gaby, great article!
I’d like to add my voice about resources available online for bilingual families.
Especially books. My son and I have recently discovered a series of books for children called “the book of the animals” on It’s really fun!
it’s a great way to learn and have fun at the same time for both parent and child.
each episode talks about one situation in which the animals don’t want to do something (wash, eat, sleep and go to school… and it seems the next one is about sharing!)
the author has written other bilingual series which are quite cool too.
hope this help.
check out the website

By Michaela on Friday, December 02, 2011 at 2:03 am.

This blog sparked some discussion over on the Adoptive Families Facebook page...

Marci Eckert Goulette Not homeschooling but the town we live in, in Iowa, offers a Dual Language program so J spends half his day in Spanish and half his day in English. He is in 3rd grade now and started in K. We are so blessed to have this opportunity to give to our children.

April Nourse We already homeschool our 3 children and plan to homeschool our son when he gets here. We have added Chinese to our lessons. When our son arrives from Taiwan in January, we plan to continue the language program. We will also keep him involved with some of our friends who speak Chinese.

Shannon Blackwell Musselman We live in Germany. We speak English at home (which is our native language) most of the time, and our kids will learn German in school. We have friends who have done this with no problems. Our daughter will be fluent in both languages and speak without an accent. We also know many parents here who have a different native language other than German. Our neighbor’s wife, for instance in French. She speaks French with her girls, and they understand and speak both French and German fluently. I say all this to say that if you start very, very early, and you speak your native language with your kids pretty much exclusively, they will know it, even if it is not the dominant language of the place you live. You wouldn’t have to homeschool to accomplish this. I do however, plan on supplementing my kids education with English language books and writing assignments. Young children are amazing at learning languages. Homeschooling and dual language schools are not the only way your children can learn another language—especially if one parent has a native language other an English and uses it with the kids.

Gabriela Buitron Johnson You’re right, Shannon, it is not the only way and I hope that’s not what it seems I’m saying. However, for us, personally, it has worked wonderfully. We don’t solely speak Spanish at home. My husband speaks English with the kids and they live in an English-speaking world, so their exposure to Spanish is limited to me and, every once in a while, a friend or two. If we spoke only Spanish at home I would feel less concerned about sending them to school in English all day. Even though we started when our kids were infants, I can tell their dominion of English is slightly stronger than Spanish and they do have a slight accent when they speak Spanish (they don’t in English). So for the time being, we are going to allow them to be a bit more immersed in both. Each family should find what works best for them! smile

Amy Deragon Gill We adopted our twin boys from the foster-care system; they came to us at 7 and are now 9 years old and are of Mexican descent. As a Kinder teacher, I will take what may be an unpopular stance here..I want my boys to become very proficient in English because that is the language in which they will be educated and, as a teacher in an area where nearly 95% of my students come to school knowing no English and are not allowed to speak it at home with their Spanish-speaking families, I see far too many children who never become truly proficient in either their “birth” language, or English and are therefore unsuccessful in their academic endeavors.

Shannon Blackwell Musselman Gabriela, I didn’t get the impression that you were saying homeschooling is the only way. I agree that families should decide what works for them. I just wanted to throw another idea out there. My daughter is from Guatemala. Although she will know English and German, she will be later in learning Spanish. If I were in the US, and she did not already need to know German for school, I would be actively looking for ways to help her learn Spanish. I will be doing this anyway in a few years once her German is solid.

Gabriela Buitron Johnson Oh, Shannon, I understand! I was just hoping I did not come across single-minded. Thank you for your comments!

By Danielle Pennel on Friday, December 02, 2011 at 6:51 pm.

Linda Konner I understand that many people feel they can successfully educate their children at home. However, as a teacher, I know for myself, that there many subjects which I am not the most skilled person for the job. Also, how will the kids fair socially? Especially since they already have a difference built into the situation - they are adopted, and I might guess transracially adopted? Will homeschooling further isolate them from other kids?

Gabriela Buitron Johnson Hi, Linda. You raise good points. I am an educator myself and taught in public schools for many years. I feel fully equipped for now. If the day comes I find that my skill set is not sufficient, we will re-consider. School is not the only place children can be exposed and interact with other children. My kids spend time with other children in structured and unstructured situations almost daily (4-5 times a week) because we have worked hard to make sure they get plenty of social interaction with other adults and children. They have six close friends their age who are transracially adopted and see a few times per week and none of them go to the same school. There are ways around the isolation but I appreciate you raising the issue because it is one that many people wonder about smile

Linda Konner Thanks for your thoughts Gabriela - it seems that you have lots of structure in place to create social situations for your kids, which is wonderful to hear. Good luck with the schooling in the years to come.

Gabriela Buitron Johnson Thank you!

By Danielle Pennel on Friday, December 02, 2011 at 6:51 pm.

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