Bilingual is Better

This post was originally published on April 27, 2009.

Another Monday another question answered by one of the members of our amazing and always growing panel of experts as part of our weekly series: Ask an Expert. If you have missed previous entries, no worries, you can catch up on all their useful advice by clicking here. Today’s question comes from Natalia Coto an Argentinian living in Calgary, Canada, with her two sons, 29 and 10 months old and monolingual husband.

I’m really glad I’ve found this website made by and for moms experiencing circumstances so similar to mine regarding raising bilingual children!

My intentions were to ensure that my children grew up bilingual all along, but right now, with my older one, I’m worried that I haven’t reinforced his exposure to my language enough, since he’s picking up English at an amazing pace -I guess that’s what happens at this age with speech in general, but Spanish doesn’t come up to him as easy, not nearly. He won’t spontaneously say anything in Spanish, and half the time he won’t even try to repeat what I “translate.”

He goes to daycare three times a week (English only), watches quite a bit of  TV (again, just English) and talks in English to his dad  so it is hard for me to counterbalance all that input. To make matters worse, I’ve just come to realize (after reading Barbara Zurer Pearson’s book) that it might have been a huge mistake on my part to talk (and read!!!) to Oliver ALSO in English sometimes.  I confess this has been happening mostly in the last four, five months, at the time when he was starting to learn tons of words and expressions (in English, from daycare I gather), and I felt like ‘consolidating’ this new knowledge by repeating and giving him opportunities to use those words.

Now that I’ve decided to talk to him exclusively in Spanish, I’m feeling some resistance and fear that I’ve weakened the very basis of his becoming bilingual effortlessly by not defining our relationship ONLY in Spanish from the beginning. Is it too late to make up for this mistake?  How should I deal with this day by day: is translating and insisting on speaking ONLY in Spanish likely to backfire when dealing with a stubborn little person? I don’t have much material (DVDs, books) in Spanish either, suggestions? We get to go to South America once a year, and maybe a visit from somebody of my family from there yearly too, but that is such a short period for him to really ‘immerse’ in the language that I can’t really count on that as a booster.

Thanks for any useful comment.  I hope to hear from anybody that has gone or is going through the same. I feel a bit embarrassed of this recent ‘relapse’ on teaching Oli my language.  In an all-English environment it can get a bit lonely sometimes (I’m a late learner of English, so I could never resign myself to the fact that my kids won’t speak -and hopefully read and write- fluently in Spanish!) Thank you very much again!

Dear Natalia,

You are experiencing first hand why I wanted to write a book for parents and why Ana and Roxana started SpanglishBaby. Your situation—and Oliver’s resistance to your language—will strike a chord with many SpanglishBaby readers. You feel like the only one for miles around who speaks Spanish, and I see from your very fluent letter that you are quite comfortable in English. You’re expecting yourself to raise bilingual children all alone in an all-English environment. It’s possible to do that, but it’s so much better and easier with a community. It could be an actual physical one—or it could be electronic, on the web or through Skype.

I am thrilled that you have read my book and that I get to hear that you have. (Thank you, SpanglishBaby!) It is true, as you say, that I recommend speaking only Spanish if possible, and I report that it’s easier if you can set up the habits of your household before the child is aware that there is another way to go about things. But I also caution that if you let language become a battlefield with your child, you will lose.

One thing I think I hear in your letter is that you have few opportunities, yourself, to speak Spanish in your daily life. That is where I would start– with yourself. A powerful way to encourage Oliver to *want* to speak Spanish is to do it in front of him. Look harder for at least one person in Calgary—yes, Calgary—who can speak Spanish with you. Try the university. (A young woman from my small town in Massachusetts teaches Spanish there.) I’m sure she can help put you in touch with someone who wants or needs to speak Spanish. Then, try to find ways to do the things you are already doing—going to the park, having playdates, eating a meal—with the other Spanish speaker. Let Oliver see you laughing and having fun—in Spanish.

A second step will be to find Spanish-speaking playmates for the children, but first work on making Spanish at least a small part of your own life and routines.

On a day-to-day basis, you can certainly translate what Oliver says to you as a base for your response to him. “Oh, tu fuiste al zoo? Qué viste?” [Oh, you went to the zoo? What did you see there?], but I wouldn’t make him repeat it. You also have his little brother. If Oli hears you speaking only Spanish with the baby, he may conclude that he only understands Spanish and may speak to him in Spanish, too. If you have a cat or a dog, speak to them in Spanish.: ) Oli may be almost old enough for you to explain to him that Spanish was the language your mother and father and your oldest and dearest friends spoke with you, so you have very special feelings about Spanish and it makes you feel good to speak it with very special people, like him. If he doesn’t want to respond in Spanish for now, that’s all right, but it’s very important for you to speak it for your own reasons (and not “resign yourself” that your kids won’t speak it).

Other tips:

  1. Look for a Spanish speaker to help take care of the children. Maybe a student, or a student’s wife. I report some hints from Jane Merrill in my book (chapter 4) for finding such people and giving them guidance. If you can’t afford to hire someone, maybe you can arrange some trades.
  2. Don’t discount those “occasional” visitors from abroad. Spend time preparing for them. You might be able to work with Oli (and soon the baby) on some “routines” or dialogues, so they can help the visitors feel at home—or for some other reason that doesn’t focus on him.
  3. Have the visitors help you find books and CDs and DVDs for the children. Look for them when you go to Argentina. (There are many more outlets for Spanish materials in the U.S. than before. Several of them advertise on this website.)
  4. Don’t expect Oli to choose a Spanish DVD over an English one, but if you (and the baby) start watching one “that you like to see,” he’ll probably join you eventually.
  5. Also, start planning now for how in a few years from now you can spend enough time in South America so Oli will eventually feel comfortable going there on his own. Many people, in fact the editor of my book, reported that trips to see her grandparents, once the child was old enough to go on her own, are what turned the situation around for her.

Children’s language—and their ideas about language–change. If you don’t persevere in Spanish now, it will be harder for him to rediscover it later when he’s ready. In terms of reinforcing his English learning from the school, that seems to me to be your husband’s territory. It sounds like a perfect way for father and son to bond.

Hopefully many readers of SpanglishBaby will write you with encouragement and advice, and some may even become regular correspondents with you. You’ve taken an important first step by reaching out to SpanglishBaby. Now let it help you start to turn things around.

Best wishes,

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.

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