This is our second installment in our weekly series, Ask an Expert, and we are so happy to introduce Barbara Zurer Pearson, Ph.D., author of the informative and extremely useful book Raising a Bilingual Child–among many other qualifications. But before we get into all those, we wanted to thank all of you for sending your questions and remind you that you can continue to do so by going here!
A bilingualism expert with over twenty years of research experience in the fields of bilingualism, linguistics, and communication disorders, Pearson is currently a Research Associate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her pioneering work on bilingual learning by infants and children and on language assessment has been published in scholarly journals and in the book Language and Literacy in Bilingual Children. As Project Manager, she contributed to the creation of the innovative DELV tests, culture-fair assessments of language development published by The Psychological Corporation.
And, now for the question:
Do children stick to their mother’s native tounge?
The following question was posed by Rick Jervis, a journalist born and raised in Miami to Cuban parents who now lives in New Orleans. He hopes to become a father in the near future and has already started wondering about the process in light of his family’s dynamic.
“What if the dad is speaking the minority language and the mom is speaking only the majority language. Thought I read somewhere that kids tend to stick to the mother’s native language.. (my wife was born in Puerto Rico to a Puerto Rican dad, but her mom is from New York and so was raised speaking only English).”
You’re part right. If the mother and the community speak the majority language and only the father speaks the minority language, that’s 2 against 1. Children usually spend more time with the mother than the father, so it might be 3 against 1. But if you and your wife can add other sources of Spanish and if you help your children feel that they really WANT and NEED to learn Spanish, the family can tip the balance the other way.
There is already one very good thing in your favor. Both of you care enough about your children speaking Spanish to plan ahead about it. You probably both have positive attitudes toward Hispanic customs and enough background to give your children the *desire* to learn the language. So, the question boils down to: Will your children have enough *opportunity* to speak and hear Spanish from important people in their lives on a consistent basis?
As a father, you shouldn’t automatically count out your contribution to the child’s language experience. There are several examples in my book of fathers who were the source of the minority language for their children. I also recommend George Saunders’ 1980s book about how he did it. (It’s described in my book.) Saunders was a native English speaker in Australia who taught his three children German so he’d have people to speak German with.
It can be done, but you and your wife have specific things to consider if you decide to do it. How much time will you be with the children? How many other sources of Spanish will be available to help out? If you were born in Miami, it’s likely that your English is stronger than your Spanish. What steps will you take to strengthen your Spanish, and perhaps learn all the little children’s songs and finger plays that you may have forgotten? Will you have any opportunities to join a Spanish playgroup or find a bilingual school? Will you be able to travel to Puerto Rico (and maybe someday soon to Cuba!) or other Spanish speaking countries, or have Spanish-speaking visitors come see you?
I hope you’ll go for it! What’s the worst that can happen? The children don’t learn enough Spanish to be active bilinguals, but they pick up a good accent (for when they learn it later in life), and they learn about Spanish language and culture in the process.
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