Dora unlocks bilingual treasure
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 15, 2006
Cartoon explorer gives young students adventurous opportunity to learn
Inside Room 4 at a midtown Phoenix preschool, 4-year-old Grace Bunch sang and
shouted in Spanish the names of animals, colors and numbers.
For an hour, she practiced how to introduce herself: "Yo soy Grace." She sang
two verses of Old MacDonald Had a Farm in Spanish and recited primary colors:
rojo (red), verde (green) and amarillo (yellow).
She did it with the help of Dora the Explorer, the superpopular 7-year-old
animated Latina adventurer.
"Dora, she teaches me lots of holas (hellos)," said Grace, sporting pink velour
sweatpants. "She teaches me azul (blue), and she teaches me words like uno and
dos, and tres, and cuatro, and cinco."
Dora the Explorer is a bilingual, brown-haired, backpack-toting girl who
sprinkles Spanish into her 30-minute adventures on cartoon giant Nickelodeon.
She has become one of the most successful TV characters among preschoolers, with
21.9 million people watching her in November 2005, according to Nielsen ratings.
Parents with young children know that Dora takes her place next to The Wiggles,
that she may even be as big as Sesame Street with her
billion-dollar-a-year-retail empire, and that she has a "live" national tour.
Her tremendous popularity comes at a time when many English-speaking parents
desire for their children to learn a second language. And like other successful
cartoon characters with huge appeal, she is fun, smart and cute. But what sets
her apart is language and looks. Dora's Spanish skills have appealed to American
parents, but her dark eyes and skin have made her a favorite in places like the
Philippines and India.
In the Valley, some parents said the country's exploding Latino population
combined with Phoenix's proximity to Mexico almost guarantees Spanish will
remain a growing part of their children's lives.
"Our society is very mixed, especially in Arizona, (and) we plan for him to grow
up here," Julia Winter said of her 5-year-old son, Will, who watches Dora the
Explorer videos and takes Spanish classes at Cross Roads Preschool, Ltd. "We
want him to have access to learning Spanish. Just like we want him to learn math
Dora the Explorer
Dora is a bubbly adventurer who wears a pink shirt and lives in an interactive
world with her mamá and papi and often visits her abuela (grandma). She embarks
on a journey in each episode with a band of friends and solves problems based on
specific words and phrases.
She speaks almost all English but throws in a few conversational Spanish
words, such as "vámanos!" for "let's go!" and "lo hicimos!" for "we did it!" She
teaches Spanish nouns, adjectives and commands, math, music and physical
coordination. She pauses throughout the show, eagerly waiting for her audience
to play along by talking back to the TV screen, counting, rowing and clapping.
Dora The Explorer has soared to international fame since Nickelodeon launched it
in 2000. Dora was the top-ranked preschool show on commercial TV for five years
and now bounces back and forth between the No. 1 and No. 2 spots with her
bilingual cousin's show, Go, Diego, Go!, a Dora The Explorer spin-off.
Parents are spending big bucks to bring her home. Licensed Dora merchandise,
including gardening gloves, shoes, home videos, bandages, records, underwear,
backpacks, books, stickers, dolls and nightlights, have brought in more than $1
billion yearly, Nickelodeon reports. The cable network estimated that one in
three preschool girls owned a Dora product as of Christmas 2005. And at some
Valley party-planning businesses, Dora is a top requested female character, just
behind Cinderella, Elmo and SpongeBob, said Mesa-based Arizona Party Pals and
Chandler-based Party Animals.
It's a bit of a surprise to its creators that Dora has become a child icon, said
Brown Johnson, executive creative director of the show. They set out to make a
Hispanic the lead character, she said, and make the ability to speak a foreign
language a "magical power" so children will feel good about it.
Brown and creators worked with many consultants to accurately portray the
Hispanic culture without perpetuating stereotypes. For example, in the pilot,
Dora's eyes were green. Creators changed them to brown, the more common eye
color among Hispanics.
"We found that parents from the Philippines, from Asia, from India also
identified heavily with Dora," she said from New York. "They say, 'My kid looks
like that.' Parents feel really good about Dora and the fact that she is
Spanish part of growth
Dora's celebrity coincides with many Anglo and Hispanic parents' eagerness to
expose their children to the nation's second-most-spoken language, said Darcy
Olsen, president and chief executive of the Goldwater Institute.
"Parents always want to prepare their children for the world around them," she
said. "And learning another language, and certainly Spanish in Arizona, is part
Children think she's cool because she speaks English and Spanish, includes them
in her problem-solving and has a pink and gray monkey friend named Boots. The
Hispanic heroine is a big hit with parents, too. Early fluency, some parents
say, could give their kids an edge in high school and college and will make them
more marketable when they enter the workforce.
"It's to her advantage to learn as many languages as possible," said Kelli
Bunch, Grace's mom. "So many people around here, because of where we live, speak
Spanish. To introduce her at such a young age was great. . . . I think she'll
The number of Spanish speakers in Maricopa County has almost tripled since 1990,
to 614,075 in 2004, up from 227,500 according to census figures. Of the county's
Spanish speakers, 5 percent are non-Hispanic.
Those numbers, in part, are influencing the way parents, and perhaps their
children, view language and culture. Children more and more are making diverse
friends, parents and cultural experts say, spending playtime with Hispanic
classmates and downtime at home watching bilingual children's shows, such as
Dora the Explorer, her animal-rescuing cousin Diego and the PBS animated series
Maya & Miguel.
"People are becoming more aware of the impact (Spanish-themed) shows are
having," said Margarita Jimenez-Silva, assistant education professor at Arizona
State University West. "That bilingualism is an asset. We're living in a world
where our communities are becoming more multicultural and middle-class parents
are seeing it might be an asset for their kids to have this skill, whereas
before, they may not have been aware, and there weren't as many resources."
Learning more at home
Julia and Matt Winter want their two sons to grow up with Spanish. They pop in
Dora videos and read Dora books to Will and Mac, their 23- month-old. And about
two years ago, they hired a Latina nanny, who incorporates Spanish into
dinnertime, chit-chat and lessons.
About two days a week, while Winter is working on her jewelry-design business,
Elva Esquivel goes to the Winter home in downtown Phoenix and helps Will with
colors, numbers and words.
"If they're having something yummy to eat, she'll teach them delicioso," Winter
said. "If she's making dinner for them, or lunch or something, she'll tell them
what it is in Spanish. (Mac) likes to talk about his body parts, and she'll say
them back to him in Spanish. Like his nose, his eyes. Whenever she comes and
whenever she leaves, we always say everything in Spanish. They don't even know
they're learning another language."
And culturally, Dora helps children realize that not every kid looks, sounds or
thinks like them, parents said.
Moon Valley mom Susan Zulch wanted her 5-year-old daughter, Rebecca, to help her
mingle and talk with Spanish-speaking children during weekend hiking trips in
south Phoenix. Even before Rebecca started Spanish classes at Cross Roads, Dora
taught her colors, numbers and some verbs.
"Especially in the Phoenix area, there are a lot of other kids that have
different languages and cultures," said Susan, who has bought Dora videos and
toys. "It's important to introduce kids to anything they can learn from,
languages and cultures."