Bilingual is Better


“My husband is a native Spanish speaker. I’m a native English speaker. We both speak each other’s language, although I’m not totally fluent in Spanish. We live in California and I would like to send my girls to a Spanish immersion public school (k-8) so they learn academic Spanish and English. My husband disagrees; he believes they should go to a Chinese immersion school to learn Chinese and English. He says Chinese would be a great language to know in the future, and he says they can learn Spanish at home. I’m concerned that they won’t learn academic Spanish at home, mainly because I’m not a native speaker and we won’t have the time to teach them a high level of Spanish. We try to speak only spanish at home now, but my fear is that they will only learn “home” Spanish, and not develop academic ability in the language. I don’t want them to feel inferior to other Spanish people when they get older, or not be able to attend college in Spain someday if they want to. Would the time spent in Chinese immersion hinder academic Spanish. (Neither my husband or I speak Chinese). The girls are only 2 years old now, but we’re planning ahead.

Thank you for your advice.

Amelia”

Hi Amelia,

The options that you outline for your children’s education are both reasonable and have both pros and cons. On the one hand, you could introduce your children to a ‘much-valued’ third language – Chinese – and have them become proficient in it through schooling, opening up opportunities for their future that might not be offered by knowing Spanish. At the same time, you would continue to provide Spanish input in the home so that you children would keep growing in this language as well. I am assuming the school that offers Chinese immersion also teaches English, so that by 12th grade, your children would be literate in English and Chinese and, at least, they would be orally proficient in Spanish.  So this option makes sense for those who highly value a third and lesser known language and for whom it does not matter the degree of proficiency and literacy achieved in the home (minority) language.

On the other hand, if you want your children to know Spanish WELL, if you want them to have grade-appropriate levels of literacy in it, and perhaps go to college in Spain as adults, then my advice is that you send them to Spanish immersion. As you say yourself, by just using Spanish at home, your children might become orally fluent in it but they will rarely reach the levels of literacy achieved by children who are schooled in that language for 8 or 12 years. Even if you provided many opportunities to develop Spanish literacy in the home, it would be very hard, if not impossible, to match the time spent in school learning in that language. So if your goal is full bilingualism and bi-literacy in the languages spoken by your family, I would say go for Spanish immersion. Of course you can always introduce a third language, but this could be done as a ‘subject’ that you take separately at school or after school.

I went myself for this latter option. My children were raised with three languages, Italian being spoken by me, English by dad, and Spanish by our nanny. When time came to send my daughters to school, I could have opted for the more ‘marketable’ Spanish immersion, but I went for instruction in the home (minority) language – Italian. For me, it makes more sense to have my children fully bilingual and bi-literate in the languages spoken at home than any other – no matter how marketable – language. The bottom line is, you have to look at what your goals are when deciding in which language(s) to educate your children as these choices will have life-long implications for them and for the entire family.

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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