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Bilingual toys taking off

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, an East Northport resident

who is originally from Colombia. Her husband, Neil Hede, is American. "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 boosted 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."

In 2007, 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 by 8.1 percent to

reach $863 billion in 2007. And by U.S. Census estimates, the Hispanic

population has increased by about 18.6 percent between 2000 and 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 both 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 both 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 at the adult education program at Walt

Whitman High School in South Huntington, is drawn to interactive toys that

allow her and Ian to play together.

"I don't have an interest in Elmo," Hede 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, an attorney and Garden City resident whose family is

from Spain, said that since his children were young the selection of bilingual

toys has greatly expanded, a change he attributes 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 [their] 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, Town of Hempstead clerk, whose parents were born in Puerto

Rico, grew up in an era when speaking English was emphasized, often to the

detriment of Spanish, in Hispanic immigrant households.

Bonilla, who has four children, is trying to build a foundation for them to

learn Spanish through simple dinner conversations, books, DVDs and, for his

3-year-old daughter, Dora the Explorer toys. For him, the widening variety of

toys means American culture is embracing diversity.

"I think it's a great indication of how our community has changed as far as

even how people look at minorities and Hispanics as a whole and how far we've

come," said Bonilla, 44, who moved from Queens to Seaford in high school. "I

faced a lot of racism, so one of the things my parents stressed was English

first ... They saw the language as a barrier to advancement, and, perhaps given

the times, they were right."

But times have changed, he said. "My children don't have to have that

curtailment. They can be who they are and proud of their heritage and culture."

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