Bilingual is Better

We are a Russian-speaking family and my 2.5 year old daughter goes to an English-speaking daycare. She is bilingual, although her Russian is more advanced than English. We do not speak to her in English at home at all, so all her exposure to English occurs at school. This summer we planned on her staying at home with her Russian-speaking grandmother, but I am afraid that three months of complete immersion in Russian will make her loose her nascent English skills. I am considering enrolling her into summer school (a considerable financial burden being my only hesitation). Do you think this is necessary or recommended, or could there be some alternative ways to keep her up to speed on her English acquisition? Thank you for your time!–Inna Sokolova

Dear Inna,

I don’t think you have to worry about your daughter losing her English over the summer. Even if she does forget it a bit, think about the big picture: what will be your daughter’s dominant language in the long run? What will be her preferred language? What language will she speak at school and with friends? The answer is English. You live in the US where English is the mainstream language and Russian is a minority language. Even if you live in a neighborhood where Russian is spoken, English remains the language spoken by EVERYONE, as well as the language of the media, of education, of business. In sum, no matter what you speak to your daughter, her English, in the long run, will always be her dominant and preferred language. You don’t see that now because, at two and a half, your daughter’s entire world has revolved around you and her immediate caregivers, who speak Russian. However, starting from about age five, children are tremendously influenced by their peers, which means that your daughter’s dominant and preferred language will most likely shift to English.

So, I am suggesting that you take advantage of the summer to reinforce and strengthen your daughter’s Russian skills. These are crucial years for her to develop her Russian. Later on, once the influence of peers and the overall social environment (which promotes English only) kicks in, it will be really hard to keep up her Russian. So it is advisable that you do that now and allow her to build a strong foundation in Russian,  before it might be too late. As for English, she has an entire life to develop it, and I assure you that since she is so young and already exposed to it in daycare, she will have no problem acquiring it and speak it like  her monolingual peers by kindergarten.

If you still feel that you don’t want to completely stop your daughter’s English exposure during the summer, organize play dates with English-speaking peers,  sign her up for any weekly class/activity (which will happen in English), watch videos, read her books in English, play music, or simply, do things with her out there where everyone speaks English. Exposing your child to the majority language is certainly very easy. It is the minority language that, in order to flourish, will need extra time and attention on the road to bilingualism.

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.

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