Teaching Homeschooled Kids Spanish

When my husband really decides to do something, he has a singular focus that only a few people in life can understand. I don’t. I’m slow and steady and persistent. He’s “cut the drivel” and do it now. Can be quite intimidating and abrasive for those who don’t get it. But once you recognize it as a signature style, it’s actually kind of fun to observe! Anyhow, he decided to learn Spanish about ten years ago. That meant if you even looked like you spoke Spanish, he would strike up a conversation with you in Spanish. He had a few fails, especially on people with Latino background who didn’t speak Spanish. (So much for not profiling…) He should have been embarrassed, but the thing is, he didn’t care! He was learning Spanish and wanted to practice whenever he could! Oh, but his wife and kids blushed. I mean, at the Mexican restaurant, people would be looking around for their food, and there would be my husband holding up their server with his Gringo Spanish. Eventually, though, we quit being embarrassed, decided to follow along, and now make friends at every Mexican restaurant we frequent.

I myself started learning Spanish about thirteen years ago during my fourth year of medical school. Fourth year medical school is the best year of your life, as all you do is “fun” rotations that you pick out. Plus, you get travel time to go to interview at residencies. That was the year I asked a Spanish-speaking bank teller if she knew anyone who could help me learn Spanish. I was encountering dozens of patients who only spoke Spanish, and I wanted to bridge that gap a little but didn’t know any Spanish speakers with time to help me learn. She put me in place with a pastor who was teaching his congregation English, and my foot was in the door. I still remember driving to sketchy neighborhoods at night and eating cactus and menudo (tripe; beef stomach).

That’s briefly our Spanish story. Both my husband and I decided that our homeschooled kids needed to learn a foreign language, and Spanish made the most sense. In general, we are very practical people. Being practical, we also know that the best time to learn a language is as a kid. We had moved around and it took a bit of time to find a tutor because, and this is my personal opinion, there is a general distrust between cultures and perceived social classes. But we found a native Spanish speaker to come to our home and spend time with our young children speaking only in Spanish. (She and every single one of our tutors have been amazing people. Each different. But each amazing.)

My oldest has been learning Spanish for about eight years now, and we finally just enrolled her in formal on-line lessons. Up to this point, everything has been done in our home by native speaking Spanish tutors who have had no training in teaching. They were just people who spoke Spanish as a primary language. I’d like to share our homeschooling Spanish experience for others to read who may be embarking on this second language trek.

We have four daughters, the oldest started learning Spanish at five years old. My second daughter was about 3. My third and fourth daughters will have been exposed to Spanish since they were born. I’m not a linguist. I’m not a teacher. I don’t even speak Spanish fluently, probably not even English either, compared to many of you! This is just my story and experience. I’ll run it in several pieces as it gets long.

Do you need a tutor who is a native speaker?

Until a few months ago, all of our Spanish tutors have been native speakers. This was a Spanish tutoring deal breaker for me. They had to be native speakers. Why? Well, our ability to hear language sounds and make our mouth, tongue, and palate reproduce them is strongest in infancy and childhood. As we age, this ability goes away, and any new language sounds that we encounter will be spoken by us with the closest sounds available to us from our own language. The later we learn the language, the greater the guarantee we will speak with an accent.

For example, I’ll never really be able to roll my r’s to say a word like rio; I’ll just consciously soften my r sound and add on some softened, repetitive d‘s (or t’s, both similar English sounds), like we do when we quickly speak the word batter.  As an aside illustrating story, my American aunt married a native German when she was 20. She moved to Germany with him and has lived there exclusively over 50 years. She tells me that Germans still tell her it sounds like she’s speaking with mashed potatoes in her mouth. Accents stick, and sadly, even when I am choosing my Spanish words correctly, some Spanish-speakers simply can’t understand me.

So I demanded a native speaker so my girls would not have a strong accent. Now that my oldest is 13, her Spanish is reported to me to be little accented by native speakers (maybe even “non-accented,” according to some). We have made the leap to transition her to on-line teaching, and the man is not a native speaker. This no longer bothers me because her “Spanish voice” is now ingrained, she continues to hear native speakers routinely, and now she needs to focus on grammar and progressing in her use of verb tenses.

For me, I believed in immersing my children as early as I could and as frequently as I could so they could get the SOUNDS EMBEDDED in the neural pathways of their brain and the CONNECTIONS WIRED to their mouths. Grammar and writing was not important to me early on. That is becoming important now that my oldest is maturing in her Spanish language, and so we have chosen an on-line tutor now who is not native that I know is strong in grammar skills.

For the fact, science-minded people, here’s an excerpt from a neuroscience book that you can read pieces of on-line:

Very young human infants can perceive and discriminate between differences in all human speech sounds, and are not innately biased towards the phonemes characteristic of any particular language. However, this universal appreciation does not persist. For example, adult Japanese speakers cannot reliably distinguish between the /r/ and /l/ sounds in English, presumably because this phonemic distinction is not present in Japanese. Nonetheless, 4-month-old Japanese infants can make this discrimination as reliably as 4-month-olds raised in English-speaking households (as indicated by increased suckling frequency or head turning in the presence of a novel stimulus). By 6 months of age, however, infants show preferences for phonemes in their native language over those in foreign languages, and by the end of their first year no longer respond to phonetic elements peculiar to non-native languages. The ability to perceive these phonemic contrasts evidently persists for several more years, as evidenced by the fact that children can learn to speak a second language without accent and with fluent grammar until about age 7 or 8. After this age, however, performance gradually declines no matter what the extent of practice or exposure.

That’s it for today. I’ll follow with the rest of the Spanish posts in readable bits. Everyone, take care!



Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Neuroscience. 2nd edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001. The Development of Language: A Critical Period in Humans. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK11007/
Illustration: By Juan de la Cuesta (impresor); Miguel de Cervantes (autor) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. In public domain, {{PD-1923}} – published before 1923 and public domain in the U.S.

18 thoughts on “Teaching Homeschooled Kids Spanish

  1. Gabriella

    I think also there’s an ‘ear’ for language sounds. Mimicry. (did I spell that right?)
    I think there may be a genetic component. Somehow.

  2. Athena

    Hi Terry! My daughter is also learning Spanish using Duolingo (although my son tells me their Spanish is not up to par with their German but it’s free, so – ) because well, Filipino resources are super expensive and I figured learning Spanish would be the best way for her to learn Filipino. Crazy, huh? In case you think so, here’s a fact: we tell time in Spanish. Telling time in Filipino sounds awkward. We’ve just. Never. Done It. Thanks for sharing your story! Hope your homeschool was fun this week!

    1. thehomeschoolingdoctor Post author

      We were just talking about that with the kids! How Filipino’s have so much Spanish in their language and why (because Spain colonized there). Came up because my husband took care of an 87 year old Filipino man who survived the Japanese invasion (the story is harrowing) with his family, hiding out in the wilderness behind the Japanese camps.

      But, yes, it is so strange that you tell time in Spanish! So does that mean that the early island culture of the Philippines didn’t have much need for time? So the words just weren’t needed? Or used? Or what do you think?

      Homeschooling was fun—-depending on which kid you asked! Hahaha!

      Hope you like Duolingo!

      1. Athena

        Ah yes, the old folks still recall the harrowing Japanese occupation. And Japan still won’t offer reparation or a formal apology to the Philippines’ comfort women (it has to Korea even before the film Spirits’ Homecoming came out).

        I think it’s because the practice of telling time in Spanish is so deeply ingrained like most words we use in everyday life – mesa for table, silla for chair, sandalias for sandals, ciudad for city, escuela for school, viernes for Friday, verde for green, vaca for cow, carne for meat, lapiz for pencil, ventana for window, and so much more.

        God bless your family!

      2. thehomeschoolingdoctor Post author

        The Filipino people suffered greatly. Somehow, my history classes seemed to have skipped over that part. Your people seem resilient. I have corresponded with a few. Did you know Jhanis, The Vanilla Housewife?

        And God bless your family too. Dios te bendiga.

  3. All Seasons Cyclist

    Some years ago I was elected to the Board of Education for a rather large school district. One day I was at the local Subway shop and noticed that one of our “Spanish teachers” was in line in front of me. She saw me but tried to ignore me at the same time. However, she did want to impress me with her fluent Spanish (after all, she is a highly trained public school teacher and proud member of the Union). The young lady behind the counter was obviously a new arrival to our country (and obviously from Mexico), so the “Spanish teacher” proceeded to place her order in perfect Spanish. The young lady at the counter was a bit confused, and replied, “No entiendo, puedes hablar ingles” (“I don’t understand, can you speak English?”). Our “Spanish teacher” know formal Spanish, but wouldn’t survive five minutes in Mexico.

    1. thehomeschoolingdoctor Post author

      Were you a scary school board member?

      Humorous story. That’d be me. Did you step up and say it correctly for the young lady and teacher? Surely a Hoosier accent on that Spanish would make it clear? Maybe that’s my problem. Maybe they don’t understand me because of my Hoosier accent. But seriously, I know what you mean. Our Puerto Rican friends make fun of my husband’s Spanish saying it sounds “hoity-toity.” There are some verb tenses that he learned that they say they almost never use. Then, another Spanish tutor told us the Puerto Rican Spanish is not proper Spanish. Whatever! Who can win? Let’s just communicate, pul-ease?

      I try to think about how my English varies from some of my friends in South Carolina. With that thick Southern accent, I had trouble understanding some of them! Honestly! We joke about it. I remember a Thai physician getting frustrated in the doctor’s lounge because he couldn’t understand the local weatherman’s English. I just had to laugh and say, “Don’t worry, I can’t either!”

      1. All Seasons Cyclist

        I was not a scary board member! Well, the teachers who worked were never scared around me—there was no reason to be. In fact, we got along well. On the other hand, a few of the professional slackards did not have much use for me (something about creating a hostile work environment).

  4. Jakob

    The following might be of interest: A story I heard concerned a professional, very busy family in Montreal, Quebec, with several children. The children spoke English with their parents – English only. The family employed a handyman/gardener/driver who was German; he was instructed to speak to the children in German only, and the children were told from an early age onward to speak only German with him. The family also had a live-in tutor/governess who was a native French speaker; she was directed to speak only French with the children, and the children were to speak French only with her. By the time these children were teenagers, they were all fluently trilingual – English, French, and German. And here is the interesting thing: Without fail they always spoke only German with the driver, French with their teacher, and English with the parents (I wonder what happened when all the members of he household shared a meal). In other words, the kids always effortlessly associated each language exclusively with the several different personalities. Talk about home schooling!

    1. thehomeschoolingdoctor Post author

      THAT is a great story! Absolutely great!

      We know an Israeli-Colombian family. The dad was Israeli and the mom Colombian. The kids spoke Hebrew with dad. And Spanish with mom. And English was learned at school. All their kids are fluent in those three languages, and a couple of them are fluent in, I think, five languages! Crazy! Amazing!

      Here in the USA, I know my friends from foreign countries (or Puerto Rico) struggle because their kids don’t want to speak the language at home. Parents speak other language, and kids reply in English. I hate for any child to lose the speaking ability they once had in a language! Today’s world is so global. We need more polyglots.

      I think of the time they’re wasting trying to move STEM concepts earlier and earlier into elementary school. THAT is the PERFECT time to learn a foreign language. Not the perfect time to develop STEM concepts. I’ve observed my kids. Math cannot be “forced” until the kids are developmentally there. When I try to push harder in math earlier, it doesn’t matter in elementary school. As for science, kids just need to explore and play with stuff. But schools here have ALL this elementary school time which could be used to get a foreign language going.

      Thanks for sharing your story. It was a good one! (Also note, I edited out your last name. If you want it back in, just tell me!)

  5. Christine

    Our daughter-in-law is Russian on her mother’s side, Lebanese on her father’s. So, she mostly speaks Russian to our 3 granddaughters (especially when she’s scolding lol) a bit of Arabic as well as English. My son is picking up Russian by osmosis, of course. My oldest granddaughter is in a French Immersion program in school (very common in Canada), so at 9, she already has 4 languages under her belt – and I’m now indoctrinating her into Broad Scots, the dialect my family spoke as we were growing up. What’s amazing is the way these little girls just switch back and forth between languages so easily, right from the get-go.

    I understand French fairly well, but I have an ankyloglossia and simply cannot make myself speak it without sounding like I have a speech impediment. Not ideal, living in Quebec! My husband is bilingual French/English with a smattering of Italian and Spanish. Apparently once you learn any of the “Romance” languages, the rest are easier to pick up.

    1. thehomeschoolingdoctor Post author

      That’s awesome! What I’m seeing here is that my immigrant friends’ kids speak their language when they’re young. And then, as the kids age, they speak only English. Their parents will ask them to speak in their Spanish, French, Vietnamese in their home and the children won’t! (Not belligerently. It’s not like they’re resentful or anything. They just don’t. I guess from being at school for 8-10 hours.) Another issue these parents and I speak about is writing the language. The kids here have no reason to see their own language written, so they don’t know how to read it well or write it. Just such interesting stuff. I’m so happy for your granddaughters. That’s exciting and lucky! We have immersion schools in big cities.

      I visited Quebec City once with a friend. In a restaurant as we were sitting enjoying our meal, someone came up to our table and asked us where we were from. We told them. Apparently, they were taking bets on which English-speaking country we were from. They had settled on Australia for some reason! Ha!

      Broad Scots. So not surprised.

  6. EmilyMaine

    I did a linguistics major at university and love love loved all the stuff about language acquisition. It is fascinating!! Eric actually lived in Germany for years as a very young boy and even ended up at a German school so his German is excellent now even though he barely uses it. I really wish that we lived somewhere where a second language was more widely used. It triggers areas of the brain that aren’t otherwise used (if I recall correctly) and that then facilitates later learning and a more overall use of the brain. So amazing!! It is impossible to achieve this as an adult learner. Love your posts. X

    1. thehomeschoolingdoctor Post author

      Hello, again! A linguistics major? That sounds so enriching. Much more exciting than science. 🙂 I remember when I drove to Quebec City with a friend, and I was in awe that there was this whole French-speaking world just a drive away that nobody had told me about. That’s neat about Eric’s German. I feel a little cheated. Wish I would have at least have had the choice in elementary school to pick foreign language over art. I hated art. No good at it, but we had art every single year. (Like to look at it a lot. Hate to do it.) You all take really good care. Really good.

  7. Pingback: Teaching Homeschooled Kids Spanish, Part II | The HSD

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