Bilingual is Better

Today’s question was sent by Maite, a Spanish-speaking mom that is concerned her daughter is not learning enough English since they use the ml@h (minority language at home) method.

“My husband and I are native Spanish speakers and we have a girl of 3 yrs 9 months. At home we only speak Spanish and have been very consistent with this practice, since we both want our daughter to be bilingual and be able to communicate with our family. She’s been in a Montessori school since she was 2. We have noticed that her Spanish is much better than her English. She is very shy and we think that part of this may be associated with her not understanding everything the teacher/peers say. Not sure about this, but it’s a hunch. In any case, we’re wondering what to do next: keep speaking Spanish at home 100% and let the school be her connection to English, or split with the one-parent-one-language to “bring her up to speed”. Currently, we read to her in both languages, but our way of communicating is in Spanish. The TV she’s allowed to watch is in English (Elmo, Disney movies, etc). Thanks in advance for the advise.”

Dear Maite,

I wouldn’t worry about your daughter’s English being less developed than her Spanish. She is not even four and since you live in the U.S., she has a lifetime to learn English. In fact, I think you have adopted the perfect strategy for your daughter: push the minority language at home and let the environment outside the home teach her English. This includes the preschool, the media, and even your reading to her in this language. With time, you will see that her English will become stronger and, most likely, it will become stronger than her Spanish. This is because once children are no longer all day with their parents and spend considerably more time in school and with peers (usually from age 5 on), the influence of the majority language – English – becomes ‘massive.’ Children at this point not only hear more English around them but they become extremely aware of the prestige of English as a language as opposed to their home language. They realize that everyone pretty much uses English in all circumstances as opposed to Spanish, which is usually relegated to the home environment. So by age 8 or 9, most of these children who did not know much English until 4 speak better English than their home language, and prefer English to their home language. Some children even get to the point where they refuse to speak their home language, and might answer in English when addressed in Spanish.

This is to say that you should not worry about your daughter’s English. Given her age and the place she lives, she is definitely not at risk for not learning English. The shyness that you describe is just a temporary phenomenon that children experience when they are not yet completely fluent in a second language. It does not have life-long repercussions or effects on self-esteem. In fact, it is fairly common and harmless for children at this age – monolinguals or bilinguals – to not be able to express or understand everything that they want to say or that is being said to them.

What you should be worried about is to keep up your daughter’s Spanish, and continue the many opportunities you have provided so far for her to learn this language. Remember that these are crucial years for her to develop the home language. These are the years during which she is building a strong foundation in this language, a foundation that would be impossible to build at later years given the environment where she is growing up (there are not many opportunities to use Spanish outside the home). When it comes to English, however, your child will have plenty of opportunities to hear it and practice it as she grows.

 

Simona Montanari, Ph.D.

Simona Montanari, Ph.D.

Simona Montanari, Ph.D., is an expert on early multilingual development and Assistant Professor of Child and Family Studies at California State University in Los Angeles. You can learn more about her here and read her previous inspiring answers to our reader’s questions here.

Dr. Montanari is located in the Los Angeles area. For more information or to schedule a phone/in person consultation contact her at smontan(at)calstatela.edu.

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