Bilingual is Better

Dear Expert,
My husband and I are native Chinese. My son goes to an English environment daycare/preschool since he was 18 month. Now he is 4 years old and speaks both Chinese and English. Next year we have an opportunity to go to a Spanish Immersion elementary (K-5) school.
Students in the Spanish immersion school receive the majority of their instruction in Spanish. English is introduced in third grade for one hour a day.
We think Spanish will be very important to have in the future, but we are worried that he won’t handle three languages at the same time and fall behind.  We aren’t native English speakers, so we cannot help him in English or Spanish. In that circumstance, is it realistic to send him to the Spanish Immersion School and expect him to be fluent in three languages?

 

Thanks a lot for your advice.
Jane

 

Dear Jane,
Usually children can become trilingual in childhood, especially if those languages are heard and used throughout the day. In fact, it is very common for many children in Europe, Africa and Asia to learn two different languages through home and community and then a third language through schooling. In most of these cases, the communities where children live are also multilingual, therefore children have extensive opportunities to keep hearing and practicing all languages as they grow. Oftentimes, the language(s) of schooling become(s) children’s strongest language(s); yet, children can develop and maintain high levels of fluency in three languages throughout life.
The situation that you describe is a bit different. I am assuming that your child is hearing Chinese mainly from you and your husband. Currently, he is also reliably hearing English from preschool peers and teachers; eventually he will be hearing Spanish from school staff and, possibly, classmates as well. The issue, then, is whether the environment will provide sufficient language input in each language once formal schooling begins. For Spanish, it shouldn’t be a problem, as this is the main language of schooling. For Chinese, you will have to make the extra effort to continue to practice it with your child as much as possible, given that he will now be spending many hours at school. The situation seems to be most challenging for English, which, as you worry, might not find ‘enough space’ in your child’s daily routine, especially in the early school years.
Now, I have never heard of an immersion program where English is not introduced until 3rd grade and then only for one hour. Is this in the U.S.? What happens after 3rd grade? When is English instruction increased? I would urge you to talk with school administrators and understand what is the rationale behind this. Usually, the best immersion programs are 90:10 models in which children start kindergarten with 90% instruction in the target language (Spanish, German, Italian etc.) but also hear English 10% of the day. Usually, the percentage of instruction in English increases year by year and by 4th or 5th grade children are receiving 50% instruction in English and 50% instruction in the other language. These programs are very successful because children are hearing enough of the target language early on (and more than children who are instructed 50% in each language from the beginning – 50:50 models). However, English instruction is not delayed until as late as 3rd grade.
In sum, given that your child is not hearing English at home, delaying English instruction until 3rd grade might not be the best situation.
On the other hand, if you find an immersion program where some English instruction is given before 3rd grade, and if you make sure that your child hears a decent amount of English each day (through friends, after-school activities, sports, etc.), then I would go for Spanish immersion. After all, English is the majority language in the U.S. and it is rare that children raised here don’t learn it. Don’t worry that you will not be able to help your child with homework in Spanish as many parents of children in immersion programs do not speak or write the language their children are learning. Schools are aware of this trend and tend to assign homework that children can complete by themselves.
No matter what you decide, remember: the key to productive trilingualism is that your child has plenty of daily opportunities to hear and practice these languages. If you make sure of this, your child shouldn’t have any difficulty developing proficiency and fluency in Chinese, Spanish and English.

 

Simona Montanari, Ph.D.- – Assistant Professor of Child and Family Studies at California State University in Los Angeles. She is the department’s expert in early multilingual development and has a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Southern California. Simona is Italian and she’s also a mommy to trilingual daughters aged 3 and 4 1/2. In addition, she conducts a workshop titled: “How to Raise a Bilingual Child” in the LA area. You can read her answers here.

 

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