Introducing Foreign Languages to Your Kids (Spanish and Chinese)

Easy and Fun Ways to Teach Kids Spanish and Chinese

I  find that learning a foreign language is very similar to dieting.  Changing my family’s lifestyle was key to successfully incorporating foreign language into my children’s hearts and minds.  Like dieting, crash diets (a.k.a. immersion) is wonderful in jump-starting foreign language acquisition however, without proper maintenance, it’s back to square one.  Again like dieting, there are times when I notice that great strides are being made, but there are also discouraging plateaus in which it seems like my children seem to be forgetting large chucks of what they used to know.  Fear not, just like the tortoise and the hare, perseverance will eventually win the race.

For my kids, I introduced Spanish very early in their lives.  We don’t speak a foreign language at home, so I started by creating  an after-school Spanish class at my first preschool by hiring an outside company to teach a class after school.  Then I found this great tutor from Berklee School of Music who was a native speaker and taught part-time .  My tutor who came to my house was much easier than recruiting a class full of kids!  Alas, my tutor didn’t want to commute to the suburbs when we moved.

My neighbor had spent years in Mexico and had a tutor which I promptly hired.  But, she was not confortable teaching small children and suddenly went AWOL.  Finally, we found a great tutor and have been with her for years and she’s become part of our family.  Yet, after many years of Spanish, I can’t say that my kids chatter amongst themselves in Spanish.  I have to coerce them to speak to the waiter at a Mexican restaurant and nudge them at the checkout line at the grocery store.  Still, the other night, the kids thought it would be fun to test their dad on his Spanish knowledge.  (He has never studied Spanish but knows a lot of words from growing up in California, and sadly, he is the only one in our family who can roll his r’s).  So, they fired off one word after another asking him to say it in Spanish and triumphantly correcting him.  It’s a start, I suppose.

Because we don’t speak a foreign language at home, I set modest goals for my children and my tutors:  focus on their accent.  They started so young (my oldest at 3, my middle at 1 and my youngest at birth) and have a native speaker that they are capable of acquiring a decent accent.  Their tutor speaks only Spanish to them, and only recently has grammar been introduced.

To increase their exposure to Spanish since their lesson is just once a week, I found a useful trick.  I only play DVDs in the car in a foreign language.  I figure that they watch plenty of TV at home, so when I got a new car with a built-in DVD player, I only stocked the car with foreign language DVDs.  Given the choice of no screen time, my kids usually opt for Plaza Sesamo which they don’t consider to be babyish because there is no Elmo.  I also found a great 3 DVD series of Spanish Language instruction for kids called Hola Amigos.  My youngest will request it.  We tried other methods;  Muzzy was a brain-overload.  It was entertaining for about 10 viewings but they didn’t seem to get anything out of it because there is just too much information.  But in order to absorb it, they would need to watch it a hundred more times but after 10 times they are sick of the storyline.   I noticed it’s now $24 on Amazon.  I think I paid close to $200.  For $24, I would say it’s worth it, but not for a penny more.

In terms of a class versus a tutor, I have to say that we have always had more success with a tutor AND we have even more success when each kid goes separately.  It’s more expensive that way, but it works better for us because my kids learn at different rates.  We had the same experience with Chinese; each of my kids has a separate turn with their tutor.  We tried to combine the two girls because they had been at the same Chinese school class for three years, but it just didn’t work.  The younger one got frustrated and was miserable.  Once they all had their own slots, they started to enjoy Chinese.  Imagine that!  They used to say that their favorite part of Chinese class was when they were picked up!  One day, when my children are world travelers, I have this fantasy that my kids will tell me how happy they are that they were forced to learn Spanish and Chinese when they were young.  I’ll keep you posted on that one when it happens!

These are the language DVDS that have worked for us.  If you are interested in purchasing them, click on the image to buy at Amazon.com.

Plaza Sesamo series.  You can also check out at your local library, rent at Netflix, or DVR .  Other children’s TV shows are too advanced for beginners but these are perfect for beginners!


My kids actually enjoy this language DVD series:  Hola Amigos. The lessons are geared towards children and are the perfect length.

This was also a good DVD that my son loved when he was about 2 to 4 years old.  The DVD has familiar songs that captivate small children.  You can set it to play in Spanish with English subtitles.  The English is for the adult, but music is a great way to get small children to hear Spanish.  Because they know all the songs in English, I have a feeling they comprehend the Spanish is a magical, osmosis kind of way.

We also found that playing board games in Spanish was a fun way to practice Spanish.

My kids don’t play this DS game ($24.98) a ton, but my oldest said it was fun and she plays it on her own.


Zingo is a good one for beginners, preschool or elementary school age.

I bought a few of these DVDs, The Standard Deviants,  and they will be perfect for middle school students who study grammar.  They are fun to watch but too advanced for beginners or little kids.


I also tried out Professor Toto Spanish Language Kit.  At $199.00, it’s pricey and I don’t think it’s worth the full amount.  My youngest liked the vocabulary builder DVD that just has a bunch of nouns and verbs put into form sentences.  I’d recommend borrowing it from a friend or buying it used on ebay, but there are other DVDs are just as effective and much less expensive.  This was a little dry for my older two.


I know this sounds insane, but once my kids were on their way with Spanish, I figured that if I didn’t start Chinese soon, they’d have no hope in hell of getting the accent down.  My kids are a quarter Chinese so everyone always asks me why I started them in Spanish rather than an Asian language.  My answer is that Spanish is much easier than Chinese and easier to practice in the real world.  My oldest started Chinese at 5, my middle (off and on because she’d strike) at 3, and my youngest at around 4.  They actually like learning Chinese now because they love their tutor.  Sometimes it takes a few iterations to get it right, but it’s worth it!

I found these DVDs to be very useful.  The PBS show Ni Hao Kailan also has a little Chinese language built into each show.

We also have these DVDs.  My son likes them but the animation is very basic.  It was hard to find Mandarin Chinese DVDs for kids; if I had access to Sesame Street in Chinese I would not have purchased these but I use these to mix it up.

Here’s a DS game that we have not tried yet, but we plan to.  My kids occasionally play the Spanish version.

I have not tried Rosetta Stone but I’ve heard great things about it for adults who want to learn a foreign language but at $299 it’s pricey.  Here’s an article on Rosetta Stone, free online learning and iPhone apps from CNN.com.

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By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom


  1. Jeanne-Marie

    Thank you so much for the DVD recommendations! I hope to learn Spanish with my son once he’s in preschool. I was wondering, have any of your children tried out Jumpstart Spanish software? Also, are there any Spanish CDs that you’d recommend? I definitely favor the immersion approach.


    • I searched through my CDs but can’t seem to find them. I remember a good one that I bought at Lakeshore Learning called Ole Ole Ole. It had great songs in Spanish like a days of the week song and they go through each song first in English and then in Spanish. It’s meant for the classroom but it worked for us in the car. I also played the CDs from Professor Toto. I will search to see if I can find others lurking about my house…

  2. Jeanne-Marie

    I stumbled across Baby’s First Words in Spanish on Amazon. Have you ever tried out anything from the Living Language? I’m thinking that this might be a good place to begin Spanish instruction for my son. Children are exposed to traditional songs and rhymes sung by native speakers. There are versions available for Spanish, French, Italian, and Chinese.

    • I haven’t tried this yet…I’ll try to get my hands on it. I do think songs and rhymes by native speakers is a great way to go for small children. Also, see if your child like Plaza Sesamo (Sesame Street in Spanish)…it’s free on our cable TV if you look under Spanish children’s programming.

  3. Dee

    Really interesting! I was so psyched to have my son learn French since I wanted to learn it so badly at a young age. He has attended a school with French Immersion since Kindergarten, but sadly, he is still not fluent. (He is in fourth.) He understands some things, but not a lot. I’m seriously thinking of pulling him out next year and putting him in regular class because he’s now having difficulties with classwork.

    • To Dee,
      I find that there are sneaky ways to keep the kids exposed to a foreign language beyond their lesson. I have to be sneaky because they are just not that into it. I hope these ideas will help your son stay exposed to French if he ends up changing schools.

  4. ruth spivak (education diva)

    Hi Mia – Great post. I’ve had a lot of frustrations trying to be consistent with Spanish learning. (I’m fluent, and would like my kids to be.) It seemed that the older they got, the more resistance we encountered. DVDs work well for younger kids, but it’s tough when they hit the tween years. Like you, I have a tutor who does 30 min. with each of my 3 kids once a week. It’s expensive, but seems to be the only time they are motivated. If I speak to them, they answer in English. Rosetta Stone worked well for other languages, but their level is a bit too advanced.
    What else worked for you? I’ve tried everything, and would appreciate any tips.

    • Hi Ruth,
      We are having the same issue; the older the kids get, the more they fight learning. We are also struggling to get some Spanish and Chinese into their heads … once a week tutoring with summers off and now soccer season off. You remind me that I need to get the Chinese tutor back next week. I do think it sort of works though. At least with pronunciation. I am hoping they can learn expanded vocabulary and grammar when they are older and motivated on their own. Keep speaking to them in Spanish. That really does work! And maybe a Spanish play date if you can find a friend who wants to learn or speaks some Spanish also seems to help my mom friends in same boat as you.
      Pragmatic Mom recently posted…A Teacher Turned Author Inspires Writing SeedsMy Profile

  5. What a great post! Just right down my alley since I’m trying to teach my son Spanish. He’s only 4 yrs. old, so I’m hopeful! Thank you for sharing at the Creative Kids Culture Blog Hop!
    Frances recently posted…Creative Kids Culture Blog Hop #1My Profile

  6. This was such a great post for me to read right now. We’ve just started with Little Pim and my 2 year old loves it but it doesn’t hold my almost 4 year old’s attention as much. She loves Sesame Street so I will have to try to find some Plaza Sesamo DVDs. Thanks so much for linking up the the Creative Kids Culture Blog Hop.
    Mud Hut Mama recently posted…Crock Pot Split Pea Soup: Simple Family DinnersMy Profile

  7. You\\\’ve been featured on the Creative Kids Culture Blog Hop! Be sure to grab our \\\”Featured\\\” button!
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