Bilingual is Better


“Hola! My husband and I have only spoken in Spanish to our 3 year old daughter Carolina. She is used to only watching Spanish media (TV, videos, books, music, etc.) and is spoken to only in Spanish by all family members. To date, she does not speak or understand English but is very articulate in Spanish. I’ve submitted questions to the experts before which have been fortunately answered and their responses have encouraged me to continue to speak only in Spanish to her.

However, my concerns have re-surfaced now that she has started preschool. She just started preschool (English) two days a week for 2 hours and I am now wondering how we will review the concepts she is learning in school. Do we review in English? (i.e.colors, letters, etc). I want her to feel successful in school. I remember when I took her to a Spanish school for a few classes she felt more comfortable participating. (Unfortunately, it is not financially feasible to take her to that Spanish heritage school right now).

She recently expressed that she does not like me reading to her in English or speaking in English to her, which made me concerned. Everyone tells me to continue speaking in Spanish to her because she will “pick up” on English at school—but what about her academic English? From what I understand, a child’s academic level of a language is usually around the level that their parents’ levels are, and since we are not speaking or reading to her in English, are we not risking her reaching a higher potential in academic English? I notice that her vocabulary in Spanish is great, and I believe it’s due to all of the reading we engage her in Spanish as well as Spanish TV. What to do?”

Dear Blanca,

I completely understand your concerns but I want to reassure you that your daughter will learn English without any major difficulty, given that she lives in the US and will be educated primarily in English. I know it is difficult to understand this now as she is still young and does not speak or understand it, but you will see that with time and with more exposure to it, she will learn it relatively quickly and effortlessly.

When children have strong skills in a first language, they have a strong basis on which to build a second language. In other words, competence in a first language translates into competence in a second language. This is especially true for academic language competence: children with high academic language competence in one language quickly transfer those skills in a second language and often end up more academically successful than monolinguals. It is when children have low skills in either language that language learning becomes difficult and issues might arise.

So my suggestion is that you keep using Spanish and you keep promoting and encouraging this language with her. If she likes you to read in Spanish, then just do so. Take advantage of this time in which she still prefers Spanish (this might change when she is older) and continue to build her Spanish vocabulary and language skills. Reinforce concepts learned at school in both languages if it makes you feel more comfortable, but do not just teach her letters, shapes and colors in English because this is the language of schooling. In order to be successful in English, children who speak languages other than English must develop academic skills in their home language first.

At the same time, tell her how much you value bilingualism and how important and special it is to know two languages. This will give her motivation to learn English outside the home without losing or neglecting her Spanish. Most importantly, continue exposing your daughter to English language experiences outside the home, just as you are doing with preschool. I suggest that you gradually increase the amount of time she spends at school and that you expand the English language opportunities that she has outside the home. It could be in the form of play dates, special classes, summer camps, etc. This will help her gradually become more accustomed to English and will lay the foundations for her learning of this language.

You will see that by age 5 or 6 her English will not be perfect, but it will start to be very similar to that of a monolingual. And then, one or two years of schooling will do the miracle and you will have a daughter who knows two languages incredibly well.

This is somewhat my daughter’s story. She heard Italian, Spanish, and English from birth. English remained a third language – the language she heard and knew less – well until she started kindergarten. At kindergarten entry, she was classified as an English language learner, but her Italian and Spanish were native-like. Just after one year of schooling – in an Italian immersion program on top of that – she is scoring above grade average in English reading and she has been reclassified as proficient. Notice that she is in Italian immersion, so she is being very little instructed in English. Yet, her strong Italian and Spanish skills have transferred over to English and have allowed her to learn a third language not only without difficulty but with an edge over monolinguals.

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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