Popular bilingual toys reflect changes in society

December 17, 2006|By Keiko Morris | Keiko Morris,Newsday

Ian Hede, at 20 months, plays in two languages.

Sometimes he and his mother, Marcela Hede, solve a simple puzzle of shapes - the words for those shapes written in English and Spanish for his mother to read aloud. And sometimes, he finds his amusement in his LeapFrog letter reader, which, with the simple push of a letter, offers Ian the sound of the letter in Spanish and a catchy little tune.

"We made the decision as a couple to raise him bilingual because we thought it would be a great asset," said Marcela Hede, 36, a Long Island resident who is originally from Colombia, whose husband Neil was born in the United States.

"We have this mentality that we are citizens of the world," she said. "We like the fact that we can communicate in different languages and with different people and meet people of different cultures."

As it turns out, the Hedes are not the only ones looking for toys that will help develop dual language skills. Industry experts say that the demand for such playthings has been growing in the past five years, and toy companies, in an attempt to cater to a lucrative market, have increased the number of such toys. Toys "R" Us identified bilingual toys as the second of its top five hottest toy trends for this holiday season.

"From the toy-making perspective, it really acknowledges this growth of our population, and it actually speaks to the economic power of the Hispanic community," said Chris Byrne, toy expert and contributing editor for the magazine Toy Wishes. "It's profitable to market high-profile mainstream toys to this community."

Next year, Hispanics are expected to surpass African-Americans as the minority group with the most spending power, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business.

The center estimated that Hispanic buying power will increase 8.1 percent to $863 billion next year. The U.S. Census estimates that the Hispanic population increased about 18.6 percent from 2000 to 2005.

Dora the Explorer, the animated television show starring a multilingual 7-year-old Hispanic girl, has demonstrated the appeal of bilingual products, toy experts said, even as it reveals that Spanish is becoming a mainstream language. The highly popular character has spawned profitable lines of Fisher-Price toys, books, DVDs, backpacks and bedding.

"The change is that here's a toy that's in English and Spanish, and it's appropriate for any kid," Byrne said.

During the past three to five years, more emphasis has been placed on bilingual products in the marketplace, said Reyne Rice, a toy-trend specialist with the Toy Industry Association. Still, Rice said that, by now, the market should be offering consumers more bilingual toys and games than are available.

Monopoly, the Game of Life, Risk, Scrabble and Candy Land all come in Spanish versions.

Fisher-Price sells a Bilingual Elmo, which sings in English and Spanish and is supposed to teach children five new Spanish words when they squeeze his tummy. And the new TMX Elmo, one of this season's top sellers, also has Spanish and French versions.

Amigo Bear is a new Care Bear member, complete with a cell phone, and claims to teach numbers, colors and phrases in English and Spanish. A new version of Baby Alive can be switched from English to Spanish.

For a slightly older children, Oregon Scientific has developed a 3D interactive bilingual globe. And LeapFrog has developed a number of bilingual educational toys.

Marcela Hede, who teaches Spanish in an adult education program, is drawn to interactive toys that allow her and Ian to play together.

"I don't have an interest in Elmo," she said. "It's because it doesn't have a book, or letters, and the conversation in Spanish is just a couple of things. That's not my objective. My objective is raising Ian as a completely bilingual child."

Joseph Ortego, 52, a Garden City, N.Y., attorney whose family is from Spain, said that since his children were young the selection of bilingual toys has greatly expanded. He attributes the change not only to an increasing consumer base but also to a shift in attitude toward immigrant cultures and language.

Among his generation of first- and second-generation children of immigrants, Ortego said there was an emphasis on "English and English only." That is no longer the general rule.

"What you also have are second- and first-generation people who want to promote bilingual education because it's a tremendous advantage, and they want to instill culture in their children," said Ortego, who put effort into finding bilingual toys and reading in Spanish to his daughters, now 19 and 15. The family would travel to Spanish-speaking countries once a year. "I guess there's a different attitude from my generation. There's no embarrassment of trying to speak another language in public."

Mark Bonilla of Hempstead, N.Y., whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, grew up in Queens at a time when speaking English was emphasized, often to the detriment of Spanish, in Hispanic immigrant households.

Bonilla is trying to build a foundation for his four children to learn Spanish through simple dinner conversations, books, DVDs and toys. For him, the widening variety of toys means American culture is embracing diversity.

Keiko Morris writes for Newsday on Long Island, N.Y.

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