Spanish Summer: Soborno (Bribery)

I resorted to bribery. I’m not proud of it, but it is working.

The kids Spanish comprehension has been increasing in leaps and bounds, but I want them to SPEAK fluently. The conversations were typical of 1st generation American kids, with them responding in English, even though they understood exactly what I said in Spanish.

I remember a kid in my Spanish class in middle school. He used to ask me for help on the assigned “páginas” in the workbook. (How we groaned when we heard that word!) That kid asking for my help was 100% Latino, with a Spanish first and last name, two Spanish speaking parents at home, and he got made fun of hard for stumbling over basic exercises like, “Me llamo Enrique y yo soy de los Estados Unidos.”

I asked him why he couldn’t speak Spanish. He said, “I UNDERSTAND it, I just can’t speak it. I can’t put the sentences together in my head on my own.” … This made absolutely no sense to me at the time, but now watching my kids heading down the same path, I realize this is a common problem.

Well, I don’t want my kids to be Enrique so I resorted to bribery. I bought a jumbo bag of jelly beans and poured them into a jar, their tempting colors on full display. I then got two other jars and marked my children’s name on them. I explained that every time they responded to me in Spanish instead of English, and every time I heard them speaking Spanish with each other, they would get to put a “frijol” in their jar.

The boys responded to this game even more enthusiastically than I expected. Soon I found myself saying “Un frijol para ti” a dozen times per hour. I’ve created monsters. My younger son had the idea to do workbook pages for frijoles. They have a few workbooks, a couple Silabarios and another one that has little tongue twisters which they copy into a journal and then read aloud to me. Here’s an example:

Mi nena me ama.
Nena ama a Papá.
Mamá mima a nene.
Nina ama a mi nomo.

When they first began trying to read Spanish, they would read words using English grammar rules. For example, they would pronounce “silla” (chair) as having an “L” sound in the middle rather than the “Y” sound required for the “ll” in Spanish. (For non-Spanish speakers “silla” is pronounced phonetically as “see-ya”.) … Now they are applying proper rules all on their own much of the time.

Here are mis niños reading one of these little tongue twisters, (and being silly as usual.)

As for the jelly beans, I think I’m going to have to switch to some other sort of currency or else my children will soon have cavities along with their fluency.


  1. We have the same problem with my little sister, who is 7 years old, she just won’t speak Spanish to you if she knows you speak English. We also turned to sobornos, bought her several books that are used in México for the first graders, and nothing workd. She actually told my mom to buy her abuelita “Inglés sin Barreras” so she can talk to her in English. However, every summer she goes to México to visit its like the Español switch turns on and after the second day or so she speaks perfect Spanish. She even gets the Mexican accent from our primos and surprises me with her use of words like ¿Qué Onda?, No manches, and ¡Que chido!. We still need to find a way to keep her Spanish after she comes back to the States…. Good luck with your niños!

    • @ MJ – Hahaha! Suggesting “Inglés sin Barreras” for la abuela is hilarious. Kids are too clever sometimes. It’s difficult to outsmart them! ;)

  2. My little one has decided we are speaking jibberish if we talk to her in Spanish and it is really disheartening to imagine her world without Spanish. She just gets such small doses, she isn’t hearing it on any regular basis. Everyone in her world understands English and since she is “a baby” doesn’t enforce the issue. Yesterday whenever I said something in Spanish, she would stop, scrunch up her face, and say “What?!” I would repeat myself in Spanish and she would just shrug and say “Oh. Shkieiyx0vwiyxvsj” and go about her business. :( I’m feeling like a bit of a failure with this one, and I think her personality is such that this is going to be harder than I imagined.

    • @ Humincat – Don’t lose heart! Both my kids have gone through similar phases.

      When they acted like that, I used to back off and go back to English because I didn’t want to “force” Spanish on them and have it be a negative thing, but in hindsight, I think that was a mistake.

      A lot of things we do for the betterment of our children are not pleasant in that particular moment. We “force” them to clean their rooms. We “force” them to brush their teeth. We “force” them to be polite. We “force” them to study their spelling words for the test at school.

      Be strong and keep speaking Spanish. Eventually their resistance breaks down.

      Also, try to use her personality to your advantage. The little one loves to have fun, right? How about if you and the oldest daughter play a game like “Loteria”. Don’t invite the little one to play. When she insists on playing too, say, “Oh, I’m sorry, this game is only for people that can speak Spanish.” (If she shows a willingness to learn a little, let her play! Hold up each card and say the name of the picture in Spanish.)

      LOL. It sounds cruel, but you have to use some dirty tactics as a parent sometimes, (see my bribery with jelly beans above. LOL.) … I know my kids have big issues with sibling rivalry. I generally hate it, but I’ve learned to use it to my advantage by praising one child for the good things he does, (and then the other child will try to emulate that behavior in an effort to gain the same praise and compete.)

      You probably won’t find these tips in a book on “Good Parenting”, but all is fair in love and running a bilingual household ;)

  3. Thank you. Today has gone much better, with me putting in hours more Spanish than usual. My little one is doing much better today, seemingly understanding what I’m saying 50% of the time, good guessing 25%, and repeating me with an intent to understand the rest of the time, which is REALLY surprising. My older one asked me WHY I was talking only in Spanish and I just said “Porque si.” and she let it go. I love being the mom, lol. It has shown me that I still need a lot of work in my own Spanish, as there have been a few times where I completely reworded my conversation because what I was going to say didn’t match anything I have picked up so far. For example, when my girls were attacking each other with spray bottles, I wanted to say “If you are going to squirt each other, either scoot back a few feet or turn the nozzle to a finer mist” Instead I said “Hasta mas patatras, no quiero que estan jugando tan cerquitas(sp?)” Which in my head, works, but comes out more as a motherly demand, less as a reasonable idea which provides choices and good vocabulary. I haven’t learned squirt, nozzle, or scoot. Maybe I should take a class…..

    • @ Humincat – Glad it’s going better! Thank you for sharing this! This reflects a lot of my own experience the past couple weeks. When it comes to admitting I don’t know how to say something in Spanish, I have a bit of a pride issue – so this experience has taken me down a few notches, so to speak. I felt bad about it for awhile. Just try not to get down on yourself and keep at it because your vocabulary is going to explode with new words if you’re determined enough.

      The mental gymnastics one goes through to find another way to say something when you don’t know the exact words is really actually cool – to see how the brain can be so creative – but I’ve been trying to take the time to learn those missing words, too.

      You’re so busy I have no idea how you’d find time for a class, and you already know so much. Why don’t you just carry a pocket dictionary with you? (or use Google Translate). I sometimes use my husband as my dictionary but sometimes he’s useless. He’ll be like, “The way you said it is fine” – and I’m like, “No, there’s a better way – what is the exact word?” and he’ll say “Um… I don’t know.” LOL.

      For example, at the pool I wanted to tell the boys to “Stop splashing” – I said, “No tire agua” — but I wanted the verb “to splash” and my husband didn’t know it!

      I think the verb I want is “chapotear”, but I’m still not sure, (if any native Spanish speaker wants to weigh in!)

  4. haha I loved the part where you said: hum? after your younger son asked how much beans he had earned.

    You’re doing a wonderful job Señora López, keep it up!

  5. I love this! Thanks for sharing your experience through this blog-I’m your new biggest fan and you bet I’ll be following your kids’ progress and stealing ideas to apply to my own.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the sobornos or mordidas and you may be able to find some earthy/healthy coop grocery store somewhere that sells tasty, sugar-free treats so your kids don’t end up being 100% fluent toothless gorditos.

    My kids are still to young and have not entered the refusal stage where they won’t speak Spanish to me, but I’m bracing for it and I’ll be perfectly willing to negotiate with them if that’s what it takes. I’ve heard of parents who do the whole “well, I won’t answer you if you don’t speak to me in Spanish,” but that usually backfires and the kid is only too happy to take the the parent up on their offer and give them the silent treatment.

    Keep it up and thanks again for sharing.


    • @ RUBÉN – I’ve tried a lot of different tactics. The “not speaking to them if they don’t speak Spanish” thing is definitely not one of the better ones. As I write this comment, I am still using candy as bribery but they’re starting to get bored so I’ll have to think of something else.

  6. That sounds like a good tactic. Your accent is wonderful! I always expect to here American accents from non-native speakers but then people surprise me. Although, from all of the time you have spent perfecting your language skills it really should not be a surprise. Has your accent always been good or did you practice at it?

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