While the majority of children in the United States will be going back to school this week, Vanessa just finished her third week in first grade. Recently, my husband and I were invited to a sort of parent/teacher conference so Vanessa could get an assessment in terms of her reading, writing and math skills. It was an opportunity for us to let her teacher know about Vanessa’s learning style, her likes and dislikes, and also for us to get to know her teaching style.
Vanessa was acting really shy when we entered her classroom and sat across from her first grade teacher. Mrs. R started by asking her a few questions about her reading, but my daughter barely looked at her, and kind of hid behind my arm. I know Vanessa can be shy when she first meets somebody, but this was different since she’d been in Mrs. R’s classroom for nearly two weeks. Prior to the assessment, I had explained to Vanessa what we were going to be doing and how she’d be asked a few questions. So when she started acting like that in her classroom, I gently reminded her the purpose of the meeting and asked her to please answer her teacher’s questions.
Vanessa then started to nod “yes” and “no” as her teacher continued with her questions and gave barely audible answers to simple questions. Honestly, I was pretty confused because Vanessa is so talkative and she loves school. My husband kept making faces at me to leave her alone as I desperately prodded her to answer in full sentences. (By the way, Mrs. R didn’t seemed fazed by any of it. I guess that comes with 21 years of experience!).
And then, Mrs. R asked Vanessa a question about a math problem they had done in class a couple of days before. She told us Vanessa was very good at math — no idea who she got that from! — and asked her to explain to us how she came up with the solution to the problem. Vanessa just kind of looked at us and then Mrs. R said, “Go ahead! You can tell them in Spanish if you want.” Vanessa turned to look at me and told me exactly step by step what she had done to solve the math problem… in Spanish!
Long story short, when we left the assessment, I couldn’t help but ask my husband if he thought Vanessa had acted like that because she lacks the vocabulary necessary to communicate in English. He, of course, thought I was absolutely out of my mind. “She’s just shy,” he assured me. “You know how she gets.” But I’m not so sure and I’ve been left wondering if we need to change our bilingual strategy a bit.
Could it be that Vanessa is not as bilingual as I thought? To be sure, she excelled in kindergarten and is currently reading above grade level. I’ve heard her interact in English without issues when I’ve volunteered in her classroom, and with her little friends during playdates and birthday parties. I know she can obviously communicate in English, but I also know her Spanish vocabulary is way more extensive.
I probably shouldn’t worry about this, and I know lots of parents raising bilingual children wish they could say the same about their children’s vocabulary in Spanish. But I’m not going to lie, I am a bit concerned. I’m thinking I need to do something about it, but what? Should I start speaking English to her? Or am I worried for no reason? What would you do?
Ah, exactly the opposite “problem” I’m having and we both speak only Spanish to them at home!
I always thought it was odd Vanessa hadn’t acquired a lot more English, like Camila did, since she had attended an all-English preschool. The difference is that she’s had a lot more people and family that care for her that reinforce the Spanish and its value.
I think that as long as she’s excelling in school, then you shouldn’t really worry.
Qué locura, ¿no? I’ve been wanting to write a post about the huge difference being exposed to the minority language through more than just the parents has on a bilingual child. Or at least about the differences in language proficiency in children like Camila and Vanessa who are both being raised with the mL@H method…
Yes, she is excelling in school in all aspects, including academical and social, so I know I shouldn’t worry… I still find it very interesting!
My son is much younger, only 3 years old, but I just noticed during a weekend at the beach with my family that where I had previously thought that his Spanish vocab was a lot bigger than his English, since we only speak Spanish in our household that he is just more comfortable with Spanish in front of my husband and I. When he was playing with his English-only cousins, he had no problem being his typical bossy self and explaining himself really well in English, but when he realized one of us was in the room or was watching him then he would start dropping in and out of Spanish. SO, all of that to say that maybe she is just more comfortable with speaking only in Spanish with you and your husband and what you saw is less about her bilingualism and more about her preferences for her parents conducting their relationship with her in Spanish.
Yes! You’re definitely right. I don’t really think Vanessa has said more than a few sentences to me in English her whole entire life. It definitely has to do with feeling comfortable and knowing that the only language we’ve pretty much used with her since she was born is Spanish. I’ve definitely thought about that, but that has also made me wonder if we should’ve done it differently.
Things were different when she was younger, but now that she’s in school and getting homework for the first time, for example, I’m not really sure how to handle it all…
Thanks for your comment and the very interesting story about your son!
Could it be that she is equates English to school and outside people and not mom and dad? Could she feel that it feels “wrong” to speak to you guys in English? I know my son only speaks Spanish to me and even when we are around his preschool spanish teacher he kind of refused to speak spanish to her.
If I a not mistaken, you guys only use Spanish at home with her so Spanish is the language she uses to talk to her parents. I can imagine if it were the other way around, if she was in a English only family going to Spanish immersion school, she might not want to speak Spanish to her parents in front of her teacher.
Just as English-only parents are encouraged to read and speak in English to their kids attending immersion schools, you need to do the same with Camila, but in Spanish.
Yes, we only speak Spanish to her at home and whenever we’re together even if we’re surrounded by English-only speaking people — unless, of course, we’re conversing with them. I don’t know if she thinks it’s “wrong” to speak to us in English, that’s a very interesting observation, but she definitely feels much more comfortable speaking Spanish to us.
Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. Deep down inside, I know I shouldn’t worry too much, but I can’t help it… that’s what mom’s do, right?
That should be “Could it be that she feels ….” not “Could she feel…” Sorry about that.
She will learn the English. It is the easier of the two languages to learn. I would continue to only speak to her in Spanish at home — as soon enough whether you want her to or not — she will be speaking to you in English. If, however, you are concerned that she doesn’t have the skills to speak in English and succeed in school — that is a different issue. Discuss with her teacher. She will be able to advise you of her English abilities.
You’re probably right, Lisa! I should be more worried about what’s going to happen the day she refuses to speak Spanish to me than about her current English proficiency. Going to an all-English school, I’m sure this will eventually happen…
I’m not at all concerned with her English in terms of succeeding in school. As I said in the post, she’s reading above grade level and has absolutely no problems with any of the subject matters or with her teachers and friends. I guess it was more an observation and curiosity as to whether I should do something to build her vocabulary in English, assuming that’s the issue here…
I think that probably she is used to talk to you in Spanish and to change that it’s complicated for her. I do not think that you need to talk to her in English, but maybe it will be interesting to look for some class that you can do with your child. I am thinking something related to music like Kindermusik or some story time at the library….something that you two can do together in English.
That’s a good idea, Ligia! I used to take her to Music Together when she was much younger, but she’s 6 now and the stuff she likes, she does on her own: soccer, gymnastics, swimming. But I like the idea of returning to story time at our local library… Hopefully they have something on the weekends!
I guess the main thing is that she’s not the only one who feels weird speaking to us in English, we do too because we’ve never really done it…
I agree with the comments above: it looks like Vanessa prefers to talk to you in Spanish, and to the teacher in English. My girl is 3 (we also have a 18 months old), and we raise them with 3 languages. While my eldest speaks Polish and German (the languages we use), she also attends daycare in Dutch- I am Polish, my husband is German and we live in the Netherlands. She doesn’t speak as much Dutch, but it doesn’t bother me- she will. It also could be that it depends on the child: while for my girls Polish and German are their strongest langues, I have a friend whose daughters are just the same age as mine. The older also attends Dutch daycare, 3 days a week, and she mainly speaks Dutch. Another thing that comes to my mind,: does first grade mean that it’s first year of school? And while she went to kindergarden, school might be another matter entirely. I think about this because my girl is also much less talkative at daycare- where she prefers to use gestures to communicate than at home where she speaks in full sentences. Of course, please correct me if I am wrong in assuming that this is a new school.
Thanks for sharing your experiences, Olga. I’m always in awe of people raising trilingual or multilingual children! Wished so much I could do the same for my kids!
In terms of first grade being her first year of school, over here, Kinder is actually the first year. So her first experience with a full day of school was last year at the same elementary school. As I said on the post, she did wonderfully and is doing great in first grade, but I was just confused about what happened during the assessment.
I love hearing from others’ experiences!
Did you ask the teacher if she’s always that shy? I agree, I think that it was her 2 worlds colliding. Spanish home English school…what to do?? Vanessa is brilliant and I try to use the word that she reminded me of “mientrastanto” as much as possible. It’s my new favorite word. If you’re concerned about her academic English do what we all have to do but in reverse. When she says a really great word en español( like mientrastanto) quickly quiz her “do you know how to say that word or term in English? I’m often relieved and sometimes surprised when I quiz Mikey on what a word or term is in Spanish and he actually knows it. If you have to teach her the word in English no problem. Trust in the transference of knowledge theories and just sprinkle in vocab when needed.
Ay, Sisi, gracias por tu comentario!!! I love your suggestion and I will definitely put it to use immediately! Vamos a ver qué pasa!!
The first thing I want to say is that it is completely normal for parents to second guess themselves – about well, todo! Next, should you start speaking to V in Ingles? NOOOOO! Relax and breathe. There are a plethora of studies that indicate children do better in their second language when their first language is well-developed. Keep developing-the brain is fascinating how it works and it will work everything out; remember that Bilingual is Better!
Second, V attends an English-only school if I remember correctly. In that parent-teacher interview, there were a lot of things going on. Speaking as an educator, children become weirdly shy when their parents talk about them, especially IN FRONT OF THEM. (And aun mas especially when the children know the teacher is going to say great things about them! Yes—that’s true!) Second, V may not be sure how to proceed (even if she may have known in previous situations). With her teacher, V speaks Ingles and with her parents, she speaks Espanol, so it can be a bit confusing as to how to go back and forth in that situation. Also, it really can’t be expected that V speaks Ingles as comfortably as her peers yet – even if previously she may have or have appeared to. Their rates, comfort levels and abilities change frequently and fluctuate with language acquisition. I think that the teacher really gave the big clue here and sensed that V would be more comfortable explaining to her parents in Espanol and that it would be OK with her also. I don’t know if the teacher speaks Espanol or not, but clearly the tendency is to speak Ingles with her. I’m sure that if V has managed fine in Kindergarten, then she is also doing well in First Grade. But when in doubt, (while V isn’t around) ask her teacher how she sees V’s confidence level etc ..in the classroom. Although if it was even a remote issue, I’m sure that you would have heard about it in that conference if not before. Keep reading, writing, and speaking Espanol with V-the Ingles will come all on its own—there is no need for you to foster it except through first language-building!
Felicidades—You have a bilingual First Grader and her teacher just reinforced through her actions that she too believes Bilingual is Better!
Wow! Right on, Elizabeth! You’re totally right! I didn’t even think about her teacher and how open she obviously is to bilingualism (even though she’s not bilingual herself!). You’ve made me look at the whole thing in a completely different way.
I do plan on talking to Vanessa’s teacher, although just like you, I think I would’ve already heard from her if there were any issues whatsoever.
Thanks so much for your words of encouragement. Just goes to show that we all need a little support and help sometimes. Gracias de verdad!
Mi consejo es que le hables en español SIEMPRE!
Es que no hay de otra!!! No me veo hablándole en inglés!!! Jajaaj!!! Gracias Xochitl!
Great post. I agree with the other comments, she just wasn’t comfortable speaking to you in English in front of the teacher, maybe a little confused, collision of worlds type thing. We visited my cousin in Italy a few years back when his son was 9. They had been there a year, the son was totally fluent in Italian, parents just had the basics. He refused to speak in Italian with them, he would just look awkwardly like “why should I speak in Italian to you?”. But then he would run upstairs and have a full conversation with the babysitter in Italian. At some point she will have the realization that it’s ok to speak English anywhere, especially in these mixed situations.
We have a 13 month old so we are far off from your stage, just doing flash cards in English and Spanish and describing objects in both languages. We don’t have the fortune of being native Spanish speakers but are fairly fluent from our studies and travels abroad. I’d say be thankful you can teach her to speak Spanish fluently, as she won’t get that in school. Just make sure she continues to learn proper grammar and writing in Spanish. I found in my AP classes and college courses that I had far superior reading and writing skills to the native speakers who had spoken Spanish all their lives but never spent a lot of time formally learning the grammar and rules as we did. What was harder for me was speaking and listening, that didn’t come until I lived and studied abroad in a native environment.
Good luck and thanks again for posting this!
Nick, thanks so much for your kind words and insightful comment!
As a writer/journalist, it is imperative that my kids not only speak, but also read and write in Spanish proficiently. I guess I should worry more about that than the issue I wrote about here.
Congratulations on raising a bilingual child… especially since Spanish is not your first language! I’m sure it’s not easy, but it’s a tremendous gift your giving your baby!
No advice, just one of those parents who wished I had your “problem”! Congrats to you and beautiful Vane. Also, sounds like she has a progressive minded teacher who would alert you of any academic issues.
I have enjoyed reading your article. I too had a difficult time with my bilingual son. We lived in Taiwan and I was his main English source. I thought he would never use it because for his first two years he didn’t put it to use much. Then after 2 he became a chatterbox. I have also introduced Spanish to him and is experimenting with my family in the US for a year so his grandparents can excite his spongy brain with Spanish. Best regards, Juan
Hi Roxana, thank you for writing this article! I have to agree with the others, she is simply more comfortable speaking Spanish when you’re around. I have an interesting dilemma which is what prompted me to come back on this site. My daughter just started Kindergarten. She speaks fluent Spanish, we have been speaking Spanish to her since she was born, no English at all. She never went to daycare or any of those 2 day a week programs, she was home with Abuela for the first 4 years of her life, at 4 she started Pre-K at a regular English elementary school. I’ve only focused on teacher her Spanish so she was very fluent, knew all her numbers and letters, everything in Spanish only. Well, I have to say it’s been a bit of a rough ride for us since she started school. She is doing great with picking up the English, however, she is not at the same level as the other kids. I knew to expect this because she only started learning English in Pre-K, she’s a lot more fluent now in English, but it’s like she’s just starting. I received her first progress report and she is a bit behind especially in reading. We now read to her in English and all of her homework is done in English and SPanish. She is a lot more comfortable speaking in Spanish, although she tends to use English with my husband a lot. My son is two years old and we are doing the OPOL method with him because we see how important it is for him to know English PRIOR to starting school. I can’t help but feel we made a mistake with our daughter focusing solely on Spanish.
Has this happened to anyone out there? When will she catch up with the other kids?