Bilingual is Better

Is it too late for my 3 (and three months) year old daughter to naturally acquire Spanish? I am the only Spanish speaking parent, and English is spoken in the home. Her exposure to Spanish is limited, and I do what I can, but end up speaking in English to her. I heard some of the theories that I might be approaching the point of no return at around 4 when she will no longer be able to acquire the language. True?

Dear Veronica,

It is not too late for your daughter to naturally acquire Spanish, but in order for it to happen, you need to take some steps to make the language more important for her.  I would start by thinking of how to make it more important for *you* to use it—not just with her, but with other friends, relatives or teachers, who can be a Spanish-speaking village for you.  Just like the saying, “it takes a village….” to raise a child, it takes more than one person to make a speech community.

People of any age can learn another language—when they have the motive and opportunity to do so. It helps if the motivation comes from outside you in addition to your own desire.

True, it is easier for younger children—but age 4 cannot be the limit. In our research projects with Miami college students, 85% did not begin their second language until school-age, and they mastered that language in most cases better than their first. Children who immigrate up through around age 10 (and others say through puberty) rarely encounter difficulty learning a second (or third or fourth) language.

Of course, these children are learning the community language which comes to them from many, many sources.  It is definitely harder to learn a second, minority language where consistent sources of input are harder to find.  That is one reason I recommend in my books for parents to start as early as possible and create the habit and the expectation that their children will speak two (or more) languages.  But my recommendation is social, not biological.

You have no doubt heard about the brain research that shows us what incredible learners infants and toddlers are. I know of several language subskills where brain patterns are different for people who learned their language before age 5 compared to those who learned after age 5, but that doesn’t translate into closing the door to acquiring a language.  According to Scientist in the Crib, the big adaptations young children have–such as higher brain metabolism, or faster creation of connections between neurons—remain with them until 9 or so years of age.  You may also have read from Hart and Risley’s research how children who are engaged in less language interaction and less positive interchanges are so far behind in vocabulary by age 4, it looks like it will be impossible for them to catch up.  In my opinion, this is more of a concern for first language learners than second language learners (See Chapters 3 and 7 of my book! Notes to my sources are also on-line at my website.  Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz!)

I will be interested in hearing which theories you are referring to that say age 4 is “a point of no return,” but I think my recommendation will be the same:  work on getting a social network in Spanish for yourself—to create a real-life framework for your daughter to want to learn Spanish.  You have already started by reaching out to Spanglishbaby.com.  There is also a lively Facebook community for www.multilingualliving.com , and
 Skype, too, extends the reach of our community of family and friends. When you make a strong effort to seek them out, you will find more sources of Spanish. If your daughter can see Spanish being useful for you, it will be easier for her to see it as useful to her.  It won’t be just something you sometimes decide to confuse her with : ).

Good luck.  It’s harder to change habits than to start them, but the hardest part is taking the first step.  Let us and others know how you’re doing.

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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Best wishes,

Barbara

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