Bilingual is Better


I am so happy I found this site! I came to the U.S. from Buenos Aires about 30 years ago. My English is way stronger than my Spanish.

I have a bright 7 year old son. I’ve spoken to him since infancy in Spanish (OPOL). He used to speak only in Spanish to me, but now speaks and responds in English 90% of the time (this began in Kindergarten).

He is really quite bright and just started 3rd grade (he skipped 1st). He has a hunger to learn and to communicate. And the things he wants to talk about are getting more complex than my Spanish can handle! When he was under age 5, short simple phrases were fine, the topics were nature and home and love and names of things, and my Spanish was perfectly sufficient. Now, I need to use nuance and lots of vocab about castles, historical periods, math, conservation of endangered animals, orchestra and music terms, the subjects go one and on! I can speak in a basic way in Spanish but to get into great detail I need to mix in English. I hate it.

As an OPOL parent, what do I do when the minority language is getting more difficult for me as my son’s education advances? I feel that sticking to Spanish that lacks the depth and vocab of English prevents me from properly educating him about so many things that are important now that he’s older! He wants me to teach him about so many things, but I am missing the fluidity in Spanish. My responses to him are a bit choppy and less colorful while he goes on and on expressive, descriptive English!

Do I need to transition to another method? And how do I explain it to him?

Carla

Dear Carla,

I think it would be a shame if you stopped speaking Spanish with your son and threw away what you have been building for the past seven years. It appears that his current preference for and proficiency in English has already made him a passive bilingual (he can understand Spanish but really has difficulty or no motivation to speak it). So, at this point, if you give up Spanish, his odds of becoming a productive bilingual will really be low. Is this what you want?

I understand that he is a very bright child whose command of English might be beyond most average children. If this is the case, why don’t you exploit his talent and ‘his hunger to communicate’ to make him fluent in Spanish? Let school, books, and the environment teach him everything he wants to know about castles, historical periods, and music terms (living in the US will easily provide these opportunities). But let him further develop his cognitive skills by learning to speak another language. In fact, while the majority of monolingual children will eventually learn the vocabulary associated with all the ‘complex’ topics you mention, very few might be fortunate to learn another language in childhood.

So my suggestion is that not only you continue to provide Spanish input to your child but that you encourage him and socialize him into speaking only Spanish with you. Challenge him to use Spanish-only sentences (no mixing to English!) and to learn even simple words that he might have forgotten or never have learned. Introduce him to the complexities of Spanish literacy and challenge him to become not only bilingual but also bi-literate (even if his Spanish skills will not be as high as in English). At the same time, work on improving your Spanish skills by taking an advanced Spanish course, and use books and media to teach yourself and your child vocabulary in a wide range of topics. This is no easy feat as you will need to put in a lot of time, effort and motivation. But if you succeed, you will not only have a quite common child with a single, well-developed language but a special child who can navigate between languages and cultures and who possesses all the skills necessary to live in the 21st century.

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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