Bilingual is Better

Is it wrong for bilingual children in the US to learn Spanish before English?

When my daughter Vanessa was born in July 2006, we decided to raise her bilingual even though I knew little about bilingualism except that I grew up with two languages and it was the best gift my parents gave me.

By the time SpanglishBaby was launched, Vanessa was 2 1/2 years old and all she spoke was Spanish. We were using the mL@H method — meaning that we spoke Spanish (the minority language) at home — and since I stayed at home with her, Spanish is pretty much the only language she heard throughout the day. With the exception of the hourly music and tumbling classes she attended weekly, everything we did was in Spanish.

When I went back to work part time, Vanessa started a mother’s day out program where she was immersed in English for five hours once a week. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about her lack of English, but deep down inside, I knew she’d be okay. After all, she was not even 3 years old and it wasn’t like she’d be having long drawn out conversations about current events.

I made sure to explain her situation to her teachers and hoped for the best. Vanessa learned a lot of English during the five months she attended the program, but I still didn’t consider her bilingual by the time she entered preschool a few weeks after she turned 3. Again, I explained her language skills to her teachers and felt confident she’d be okay.

Although all her teachers seemed to support the idea that I was raising her bilingual, looking back, I imagine it must have seem strange to them that even though I was obviously perfectly capable of teaching my daughter English, I had chosen not to do so. In other words, my daughter didn’t speak English fluently by the time she was 3 years old not because my husband and I were monolingual Spanish-speakers, but because, despite our own bilingualism, we’d chosen to make Spanish her first language — knowing full well that she’d learn English in school.

While this may not seem like a big deal to those of you raising bilingual kids, you can surely see how this can come across as strange and even counterproductive considering we live in the United States and not in Latin America or Spain. Even so, it never occurred to me that I was doing my child a disservice by not teaching her this country’s majority language first. Nobody ever told me as much, but in retrospect, I realize it was implied by several people.

In fact, we’ve even gotten comments related to this notion here on SpanglishBaby:

“We live in an English speaking country and children will have to compete against native English speakers. Why make English your child’s second language if that doesn’t have to be the case? Why not establish a foundation in English, the language the child will need more than any other, and then introduce Spanish?”

This comment was left on a post our contributor Diana Limongi-Gabriele wrote last year in which she wondered what attending preschool would do to her son’s Spanish skills — a common concern for parents who know the majority language eventually takes over. I must say it still surprises me to see comments like the one above, but I guess they just go to show how many misconceptions continue to surround the topic of raising bilingual children.

My now 7-year-old bilingual daughter is living proof that we did nothing wrong in making Spanish her first language. She not only reads above grade-level in English, but she’s incredibly sociable at school and proud of being bilingual.

When my son Santiago was born almost four years ago, armed with all the knowledge I had gained thanks to the research I’d done for SpanglishBaby and the real life experience of raising Vanessa bilingual, we followed the exact same route with him, making Spanish his first language. And I don’t regret it one bit!

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