This post was originally published on Aug. 31, 2009.
This week’s Ask an Expert question was sent by Donna, mother of three.
“I have 3 children. The older 2 who are 12 and 9 mostly speak and understand English. We are trying to speak only Spanish to the baby who is 2 months old. What can we do to be sure that the baby speaks only Spanish first if her siblings are speaking to her in English?”
If you speak only Spanish to the baby, she will begin responding in Spanish. Of course, it’s ideal to have the child hear as much Spanish as possible, but it’s not the end of the world to have her hear English. After all, if you were using the one-parent-one-language strategy (OPOL), the child would be hearing English as well as Spanish. You can be pretty sure that if you speak with her more in Spanish than the others speak in English, she will speak more in Spanish, too.
One of my favorite stories from the people I interviewed for my book was from Martine, who is speaking Romanian with her children, but lives in the part of Belgium where the major language is Dutch. Her older boy, who at that point was speaking mostly Dutch, got it into his head that his baby twin brothers understood only Romanian. So he spoke to them in Romanian, and even several years later when the twins went to kindergarten, the older child told their teacher, “You have to speak to them in Romanian, or they won’t understand.”
You could try to convince your older children that the baby only understands Spanish. How? Since you say the other children speak and understand *mostly* English, I think you’re saying that they have at least a small understanding and ability in Spanish. If they only ever hear Spanish being spoken to or by the baby, it will be a natural conclusion for them that Spanish is all she understands, and they may be more willing to speak with her in Spanish than with older people. Don’t be shy about reminding them to do so.
A new baby in the house is often an opportunity to start fresh. If you and your husband are more careful about speaking only Spanish with the new child, the older children may be convinced to do so, too. With or without the older children’s help, the baby will associate Spanish with you, and that’s mostly likely what she’ll speak with you.
(If you have a dog, I’d speak to it in Spanish, too.)
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. As Project Manager, she contributed to the creation of the innovative DELV tests, culture-fair assessments of language development published by The Psychological Corporation. You can see her answers by going here.
As always, feel free to leave your thoughts or advice about this in the comments below.