Bilingual is Better

Today’s Ask an Expert question was sent by Marcela, a mother raising two bilingual niñas.  Don´t forget you can always click here and leave your own question for the experts.

“My kids are not babies anymore. They are 12 and 8. The 12 year old speaks better Spanish. It is harder for the 8 year old. I tried to tell them that at home we only speak Spanish, but for the little one that stops her from telling me her stories. What advice can you give me? I want them to be FULLY bilingual.”

Dear Marcela,

I completely understand your problem and your frustration as I am also experiencing something similar with my daughters. My oldest daughter, almost six, is completely fluent in Italian, Spanish and English. She passes as a native speaker in Italy as she has no accent, and her language is so advanced that people cannot believe she wasn’t born or raised there. At the same time, she is extremely fluent in Spanish; she reads in it and can talk with very few errors. The same is true for her English. In her, I see what is called “language aptitude,” a particular talent for language(s) that some children have and others might not.

My younger daughter is four and a half and, as opposed to her sister, she doesn’t seem strong in any of her three languages. Her Italian is dominant but she produces many errors, partly due to the influence of English in her Italian. She has learned a lot of English in the last year but because it is her third language she is still not completely fluent in it. And the same is true for her Spanish.  The crucial issue is that she seems to have a hard time keeping up with three languages and might be one of those children who would prefer to abandon Italian and Spanish to just go with English, the majority language.

Although personality – or the lack of language aptitude – might be the culprit, it is also true that my little one was not exposed to Italian as much as her sister in those first crucial years of life. She never had extensive one-on-one interactions with me because her sister was always around demanding interaction herself. And she pretty much had to learn Italian from her sister because I was working full time during those years. So it is important to remember that promoting multilingualism among younger siblings requires a bigger effort from our part and perhaps more understanding. As I said before, younger siblings do not receive the same amount of one-on-one interaction than first children did. They are also tremendously influenced by their siblings as to which language to learn and use. If older siblings speak English, then the amount of Spanish heard by younger children decreases, making them less likely or motivated to learn and speak this language.

How can we solve this problem? Exposure, exposure, exposure…
Continue speaking Spanish in your home, don’t give up (this is what many parents mistakenly do). Provide your younger child with more opportunities to practice this language, from purchasing books, tapes and videos in Spanish, to perhaps enrolling her in an Spanish immersion program (ideal) or in Spanish classes. Emphasize what an amazing “talent” it is to be bilingual and constantly praise her for being able to speak two languages. Children love to please their parents and if they can please you by speaking two languages they will try or at least be more motivated to do it. Take a trip to a country where Spanish is spoken, where the child will have to interact in that language or won’t be able to communicate (for a long period of time, if you can). And see if your oldest child can help: if she started using Spanish with her sister, perhaps your youngest daughter could learn and use more of it. After all, in my case, it was really my oldest daughter who taught a great deal of Italian to my little one and who motivated her to learn and speak it. To these days, it is still their preferred language and the language which they use all the time to communicate. Although I fear that schooling and the influence of English-speaking children might break this fragile link, I am confident that any talkative (!), motivated, yet understanding parent can succeed in raising fully bilingual children.

Good luck!

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.

Recent Posts