Bilingual is Better

“I am a bilingual mother of a 32 month old little girl who has been spoken to in both languages (Spanish and English) since birth. We live in the US and since English is the dominant language we are making a concerted effort to speak and use Spanish at home as much as possible but I can’t say that we are following any specific model like OPOL or ML@H because the reality is that I speak mostly English with my husband and she does watch some children’s shows in English as well as we read to her in both Spanish and English. I’d have to say that we speak Spanish to her about 40% of the time or maybe that’s my overestimation.

My parents are native Spanish speakers and raised us in a ML@H environment. My language level is proficient in both languages and I really want the same for our daughter BUT my husband’s Spanish level is not proficient and although he understands most of it he has a limited vocabulary in Spanish. I work full time and he works from home so he is the primary care giver for our daughter. He tries to speak in Spanish but I have noticed he resorts to English most of the time. We do spend time with my parents about twice a week and once a week my mother watches our daughter (we speak almost all spanish to each other and her when we are with my parents) but I have noticed that our daughter automatically responds in English when spoken to. If prompted she will switch to Spanish but this is not her first response. I speak mostly in Spanish to her when I am home but do admit that at times I catch myself speaking English as I flow from a conversation with my husband to her.

So here is my dilemma, just last week we were reading Olivia books (which I got from the library in Spanish) and she stopped me. No “panish” mami. No “panish”! I couldn’t believe my ears. She was saying she didn’t want them read to her in Spanish. Not what I had in mind as far as language recognition. She does not attend daycare or preschool. She is not really around other kids except at playgrounds or on outings with dad so why is she already resisting the use of Spanish?

I responded to her “no Spanish” request by explaining that the book was in Spanish and I couldn’t read it in English but more importantly Spanish was very important to us because we need it to communicate with our cousins, and most importantly abuelito and abuelita. She insisted and I told her that if we didn’t keep learning and speaking Spanish her grandparents would not be able to communicate with her and therefore would not come around. Of course she started to bawl like I had smashed her hand in a door. Sobing she said, “si mami, mi casa abuelita, si please”. How should I have responded? How do I address her sudden reluctance to speak or be spoken to in Spanish?

We will enroll her in a Spanish immersion preschool in January for two days a week from 8:30 to 3:30 so we hope hearing her peers speak it will help her find the joy in being bilingual but we’d sincerely appreciate your advice and suggestions.
Kind regards,”
Lilli

Dear Lilli,

Your letter will strike a chord with so many other SpanglishBaby parents!  You and your husband speak English together, you find yourself falling into English with your daughter, and she responds in English regardless of the language spoken to her.  She is so precocious she can even tell you “no ‘panish, Mami.”  How can you argue with that?!

When your daughter asks you not to speak Spanish with her, she’s telling you that there’s not enough in it for her–so how can you make Spanish something that she feels really good about? I think you responded exactly right to her request for you to read to her in English–by telling her how much Spanish means to you and that you want to speak Spanish with her because Spanish is so special to you and she is special, too.  You also reminded her of the reason that it is important to her that she is learning Spanish, so she can enjoy being with her abuelitos.

It would help if you were more careful with your own language use, at least for a while, but I would also do some things behind the scenes, not directly with your language. Is she getting enough praise for her Spanish ability?  Does she see others being praised for being bilingual?  And can she see it as a part of her life—not a choice?  You have several advantages for making it part of her life that others will be jealous of:  involved parents close by who truly speak Spanish and a daughter who values the time with her grandparents and cousins, and who doesn’t cry or argue when you remind her to switch to Spanish.  It’s also a plus that your husband understands Spanish and speaks it when your parents are around to help.  I wouldn’t count on him for a regular source of Spanish, but it is very good that he does what he can and does not feel left out when people speak Spanish around him.   And now, there is a Spanish immersion preschool near you.

So, in addition to stepping up the praise, I would do two things.  I would discuss your daughter’s reluctance with your parents, so they can praise her, too, and will be sure to tell her how glad they are that she is making such good progress in Spanish so they can be together.  I would also check out the preschool carefully—to make sure that there is a real Spanish focus and mostly Spanish being spoken there. Hopefully, there will be some children who are more comfortable in Spanish than English—whom she will enjoy playing with.  If not, I would actively seek such children out.

Most of all, don’t panic.  Your daughter’s reaction is very common and, when you think about it, logical.  She observes that she doesn’t need Spanish—even the Spanish speakers in her life will understand her in English.  The community language is a given, but the benefits of the second language need to be so clear to her that you don’t have to say them (although it doesn’t hurt to talk about them, too).

Your situation—and your concern– make me very hopeful that your daughter will continue becoming bilingual and will appreciate it, too, as you do.

Let us hear how it’s going,

Barbara

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Barbara Zurer Pearson, Ph. D. – A bilingualism expert with over twenty years of research experience in the fields of bilingualism, linguistics, and communication disorders, Pearson is the author of the informative and extremely useful book Raising a Bilingual Child. She 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. You can see her answers by going here and follow her work through her blog.

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