Bilingual is Better

“Hello, I was born and raised in Norwalk, CT. Both my parents are from Costa Rica. I met my husband in South Florida. He is American-born and raised in California. We got married and had our first baby girl on May 6th, 2009. Now he and I are arguing about what language to speak to her in. I suggested I speak in Spanish, and he in English, but he’s afraid that she will learn Spanish before English, and will not allow me to speak to our little girl in Spanish. I truly want her to be bilingual. Please advise as to what I can do so that this is possible. Desperately awaiting your answer. Thank you – Grettel Golson “Cabrera”.”

Dear Grettel (and others in Grettel’s situation),

You raise a very serious issue.  Raising a bilingual child is much, much harder if your husband does not support you in it. Even if you are the one to be the Spanish speaker, the attitude of your husband (and other significant people in your family) will affect your success and happiness in speaking your language with your child.

The bad news is that attitudes are harder to change than beliefs.  We are not aware of having them, and usually don’t know where they came from.  They build up in small steps over a long period of time, so they are difficult to change quickly.  But they can and do change!  Understanding beliefs may be a step in the direction of changing attitudes.

What are your husband’s beliefs about children learning two languages?  Who does he think of when he thinks about children who speak two languages?  Was there someone in his childhood who might have put him off? Or does he just have no experience with it at all?  What is it about your daughter speaking Spanish that alarms him?  Is he worried about his relationship with her?  Will you and she have secrets he can’t share?  Is he worried for her wellbeing?  Maybe he thinks that she will learn more slowly, or that people will treat her with less respect if she speaks Spanish.

All of us at Spanglishbaby know about the many advantages to the child that come from learning two languages.  (I hope I made them very clear in chapter 1 of my book : )  But all the facts in the world do not convince someone with an emotional reaction that keeps him or her from processing your arguments.

The conversation about language attitudes is best undertaken before the baby is born, but it is never too late for couples to try to understand each other better, and hopefully come to an agreement. If you feel you both have too many emotional reactions, it might be helpful to have the conversation with a third party, someone your husband is comfortable with—but who shares your ideas.

Once you know what is behind your husband’s attitude, you can make a plan to begin trying to change it.  (Write us back and we can brainstorm with you about it.)

Meanwhile, all is not lost.  Your daughter *can* learn Spanish after she learns English. You can even switch to Spanish later when your husband’s comfort level with the language is higher.  Your job now is to make or strengthen your connections with Spanish speakers, and create a positive attitude toward Spanish and Spanish speakers in your daughter, so when you get the green light, she will be ready to jump right in.

Suerte,

Barbara

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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