Latina Entrepreneur’s Secrets to Making Your Child Fluent in Spanish

Latina small business owner Melissa Rohan, President of Waterfront Academy Montessori in Southwest Washington, D.C., recalls many of the challenges her mother faced while learning English as a second language, and how set backs have driven her and her family to work harder and help others learn.

“My mother is an immigrant from Cuba. To this day, I still remember my mother’s ESL instructors. They really weren’t helpful, and even put down some of the students in the class,” Melissa recalls.

“As a former ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, former DC State Board of Education candidate, and now owner of my own religious bilingual Montessori school, my goal has always been to motivate and to help others become passionate about learning. In fact, this school is largely inspired by my mother’s experiences as an immigrant and as a former Montessori teacher.”

In 2012, Melissa opened a one-of-a-kind private school, which combines a unique blend of Montessori, religious, as well as bilingual education through its English and Spanish dual immersion program.

She opened the school to help her own children learn “academic” Spanish because there simply weren’t enough options for a high quality Spanish immersion education in her community.

Melissa recently sat down with Think Freely Latino to offer some advice and useful tips on how to help your child become bilingual and truly fluent in Spanish.

  • Make Spanish the preferred language, at least in the child’s early years. Present your child with fun and cool educational options in Spanish. Speak to your child primarily in Spanish, especially when you are doing any fun activities, whether its reading a favorite book or playing a game. If you don’t speak it at home, make sure your school’s immersion program explains the types of fun activities that can be duplicated at home.
  • Never scold, discipline, or correct a child in Spanish. “This one is pretty self-explanatory,” says Melissa. Scolding or disciplining a child in the language you want them to learn creates a negative association with it. This may make the child more prone to choosing not to listen to, practice, or use Spanish.
  • Expose your children to music, dance, and art in Spanish. When choosing books in Spanish, Melissa also recommends opting for original Spanish-language material, rather than material translated from English to Spanish.  Whether it’s a classic like Cri-Cri or a new artist like Uno, dos, tres con Andrés, children learn through movement.
  • Use Spanish on the playing field. When you use Spanish on the playing field, you are essentially introducing your child to another set of vocabulary words – jump (salta, brinca), run (corre), up (arriba), down (abajo), catch (atrapa), throw (lanza), faster (mas rápido), slower (mas despacio, lento). They also learn numbers – two strikes (dos strikes), the score is 5 to 3 goals (cinco a tres goles), etc.
  • If Spanish is spoken at home, one parent should speak to the child exclusively in Spanish. Leverage your family members that speak Spanish – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors. Ask them to speak to your child in Spanish.  The idea is to encourage the child to practice the language of a loved one, with that loved one.
  • Opt for simple phonetics in Spanish, instead of teaching sight words.  It is always better to help your child to, “help themselves towards independence.” This includes when you are attempting to get your child to read in Spanish. “Spanish happens to be easier to learn to read than English. This is because there aren’t quite as many rules or exceptions to rules, as you would find in English. Start out by naming all the sounds of the alphabet, rather than naming the letters,” Melissa adds.
  • Don’t try to translate if your child is under age six. “Children under the age of six are absorbing language, translating only confuses children at this age.” Keep in mind that children do use words from each language, Spanish and English, interchangeably. Mixing the use of both languages within the same thought is quite normal, and even developmentally appropriate in early years.
  • Do your homework. If you are considering a Spanish immersion program for your child, research several options and ask the staff questions. To learn more about dual immersion programs or about Waterfront Academy Montessori, visit

Photo: Melissa Rohan instructs two dual language emersion students. Photo courtesy of Waterfront Montessori Academy.

Melissa Rohan is the founder of Waterfront Academy and serves as President of the Board of Directors. She is also a Think Freely Latino education contributor. 

She formerly taught English as a Second Language teacher in Miami, Florida and Washington, DC. She also served as an executive member on the Potomac Lighthouse Public Charter School Board of Trustees, an executive member on the board of The Hill Preschool, co-chair of the SE/SW Parents and Neighbors for Education Excellence Now!, the community member of the Local School Advisory Team (LSAT) for Amidon-Bowen Elementary School, and ran for DC State Board of Education for Ward 6 in 2010.

Melissa Rohan is married with three children, and currently live in Southwest DC.


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