Spanish In The House

One of our objectives in choosing to spend quite a few months in South America was to ensure that the kids would learn to speak Spanish conversationally. My wife has always been frustrated living in California, where 30% of the population speaks Spanish but our kids have been unable to say more than “Buenos Dias” to the gardeners. Budget cuts at California schools mean that in our school district, daily Spanish classes don’t start until the 7th grade. Considering that most experts agree that languages are best learned at a much earlier age, this has been a problem.

For the past 5-6 months in Cusco, our kids have learned a tremendous amount of Spanish, but in public they are often reticent to speak. They have daily lessons from 8 am to 1 pm with Patty, our profesora who comes to our house, but we decided that we needed to take it to the next level. We initiated the “Speak only Spanish in the house” rule. I’ll admit that this has been challenging. We started out with a point system: anyone who speaks English in the house gets a point and the person with the most points has to give the other family members a massage at the end of the day. Initially, the kids really got in to this and any utterances in English were greeted with a rousing family chorus of “PUNT-O!” (“Point!”) This worked well at times, but we ran into problems when the kids kept the tally. Our son and daughter are 18 months apart and extremely competitive with one another and even the mere possibility of one sibling uttering a syllable in English would send the other scurrying to the scorecard to record a point. If we heard “PUNT-O!” from the other room, we knew we were in for an argument.

From this punitive method we migrated to a more incentive-based approach…yes, I’m talking cold, hard cash. Go all day with less than three utterances in English and you get a couple bucks…between four and six mistakes, you get a little less. Our reasoning was that this unique opportunity to learn Spanish had a limited shelf life and when we got back to California, we’d be paying $50 per hour for private what’s the big deal with a couple bucks a day? This has been the method that has worked best thus far.

Occasionally, there are some things that just can’t be communicated in Spanish, like a math or science homework explanation or something very complicated. During these times one of us prefaces an explanation with, “Voy a hablar en Ingles.” (I’m going to speak English). Once the quick English explanation is over, it is back to Spanish. Another challenge with speaking only Spanish in the house is disciplining the kids. Nothing gets their attention like a quickly barking out, “Stop screwing around and get on with your homework!” Trying to say this in Spanish with the right tone, force and curtness is difficult and slowly fumbling through the grammar just defeats the purpose. When I’m trying to be angry in Spanish and I’m halfway through a sentence and the kids are trying to suppress a giggle, I know that it is time to revert to the mother tongue.

Overall, we’ve done a fair job speaking Spanish in the house, although my wife’s fear is that we are creating our own brand of Spanglish that only we can speak. About a month ago, we passed a milestone of sorts. The kids have started to correct my grammar in public. Ordinarily, this might be kind of annoying, but I honestly love the fact that they know their stuff.


  1. Buen trabajo!!
    It is hard to switch a language at home once you picked one. I am Peruvian, my husband German, but since we met we just spoke Spanish... I had difficulties to learn the English language. Love your blog!

  2. Gracias Coralia.
    It definitely is a challenge.