Bilingual is Better
Photo by lepiaf.geo

Photo by lepiaf.geo

Hard to believe it’s barely been two months since we launched SpanglishBaby.  In such a short time we’ve connected with amazing people and read inspiring stories about your own bilingual journey that so many of you have shared in the comments, thru emails and as guest posts.  We truly feel this community is growing strong.

We’ve learned that one of your favorite categories (and ours as well!) is Ask an Expert.  We feel privileged to have gathered such a professional and caring panel of bilingual experts to help us answer your many questions about raising bilingual and bicultural children. Please, keep the questions coming!

Simona Montanari, Ph. D.

This week we welcome back our very first expert, Simona Montanari.  She’s an expert on early multilingual development and Assistant Professor of Child and Family Studies at California State University in Los Angeles.  You can read more about her here.

Is it too late to start with the One-Parent-One-Language method?

This week’s question was sent by Neyzza Martinez, mamá to an 18-month old boy.

“I live six months in Puerto Rico and six in the U.S.  At first I talked to my son in English and my husband talked to him in Spanish. I stopped doing it when he was 18 months because a neighbor told me he could get confused and that I should only introduce one language and later the second one when he was fluent in the first one. He is two and a half now and some of his words are in Spanish and some in English. I want to know if I can start talking again to him in only English and my husband in Spanish because it’s very important to me that he speaks both. Please let me know if it won’t harm his speech, and if it is safe to do that. Thanks.”

Dear Neyzza,

Of course it is safe for you to speak English to your child and for your husband to use Spanish with him! Thousands of families around the world have been successful in raising bilingual children just by doing that, each parent using their own language with the children. This approach, called the “one-parent-one-language” method, has been widely researched and it has been shown to be one of the most successful methods for raising bilingual children.

For children who hear, from birth, one language from one parent and another language from the other parent, learning two languages is just the most natural outcome since this is what they have been taught to do. So, by hearing you use English and your husband Spanish, your child learns naturally that English is what he should speak with mommy and Spanish what he should use with daddy.

In addition, I can reassure you that children who hear two languages from birth do not get confused: decades of research have shown that children’s brains have all the capacities necessary to cope with and fully master two or more languages if they are given the opportunity to hear and practice these languages on an everyday basis. The idea of confusion in bilingual children is really a myth, an old belief prevalent in monolingual countries that has almost become political.

So, explain to your neighbor or anybody else that has something to say about your language practices with your child that plenty of research shows that children who hear two or more languages from birth don’t get confused; in fact, this is the perfect time for children to acquire languages. Although children can also learn a second language after one has already been established, the best method remains, to my opinion, exposing the child to those languages from birth. When learning a second language in childhood, children do not follow the same “unconscious” strategies that they follow when learning two languages from birth; learning might be more explicit, it might produce more errors, and the course of development follows a somewhat different path. So, as long as you can provide your child with sufficient Spanish and English on a daily basis, use those languages with your child consistently from day 1.

Also, make sure that you remain consistent in your use of English and your husband’s use of Spanish over time. In other words, don’t fall in the same “trap” you have ended up in. Children whose parents mix languages or use both languages with them (as in your case using English first and then Spanish) might end up preferring the language that they hear more or that is supported in the community. If your child feels a better connection to Spanish, hears more Spanish overall, or sees that the community uses Spanish, he might decide to just learn and use Spanish, the language that he considers most important.

However, if you socialize your child into ALWAYS using English with you, then that will be less of an issue. My own children think it is extremely awkward to use English with me (and never do it) because I always stuck to my native Italian when talking to them. This is true even if we live in Los Angeles and the majority of people out there don’t speak Italian. The fact that you live six months in Puerto Rico and six months in the US will really help you raise a truly bilingual child. Keep the hard work up and good luck!

Simona Montanari, Ph.D., is located in the Los Angeles area. For more information or to schedule a phone/in person consultation contact her at smontan2@calstatela.edu.

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