Bilingual is Better

Hi, my name is Erin, and my husband and I are raising our almost-2-year-old bilingual, using no real method.  My native language is English, my husband’s is Spanish.  We decided against OPOL because I am a SAHM and I spend the most time with our son (my husband is often gone for weeks at a time for work).  My native language is English, so if we did OPOL, my son would get VERY little exposure to Spanish.  For the most part, we speak Spanish at home, with some English mixed in.  My son understands both, but tends to answer in Spanish, and nearly all of the words he says are Spanish.  I know he will learn English, that’s not even a concern of mine, but my concern is… I am NOT a native Spanish speaker.  I am fluent, but I have an accent, and I do make grammatical errors.  So are we doing more harm than good in that he is with me most of the time, we speak Spanish most of the time, but my Spanish is not native-speaker quality? I’m hoping to put him into a bilingual school, which I’m sure will help with both languages, but for now I’m afraid he’s not going to know either language well :(

What are your thoughts on our “method” or lack thereof?

Dear Erin,

You say you have no method, but it seems to me that by speaking Spanish along with your husband, you have adopted a perfect method to maximize the amount of Spanish your child hears—and is motivated to speak. From what other people in the U.S. tell me, that’s a very good plan, especially since your husband, the native Spanish speaker, is often away from home.

For the question you ask – Will speaking to my child in a non-native accent do more harm than good — my book, Raising a Bilingual Child, has several sections devoted to the answer. My opinion is that you do *much more good* by giving the child more opportunity and more motivation to use the language that won’t be reinforced by the community (pages 146-148!). The book also provides testimony from at least four non-native parents in the case studies. One very helpful example is a published case about Australian George Saunders, who taught his children German. He has a lot of tips for a person in your position (as does Jane Merrill, also cited in my book).

As long as you are not the ONLY Spanish model the child ever has, he will be very unlikely to pick up your accent, and he will probably end up eventually correcting your errors (which you may find annoying : ). 

So, I wouldn’t worry about your non-native Spanish as long as you’re fluent and comfortable with it.  But I would work to get some native Spanish models in your lives (for both of you), especially when your husband is away.  There are always tapes and videos, and you mention that you want to find a bilingual school for your son, which will be good.  Meanwhile, can you enlist any of your husband’s relatives to come and play with you and your boy in Spanish from time to time?  Are there any college students you could pay for a few hours of language immersion for the two of you?  A play group?  A Spanish church?  You will be surprised, I think, even in very monolingual towns how many speakers of other languages there are, but you sometimes have to go looking for them.

Remember, as a language model for your son, you are not only providing new words and grammar.  By speaking Spanish with him, you are creating an environment where Spanish is welcome all the time.  That gives the child more time to practice and consolidate what he’s learning. And you are demonstrating that Spanish is a language worth learning. This adds to his motivation to learn the language. Those are very big gifts you are giving your child. I would be very proud to be doing what you are doing. I hope you keep it up.

Best wishes,

Barbara

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. You can see her answers by going here and follow her work through her blog.

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