Bilingual is Better
Photo by luis de bethencourt

Photo by luis de bethencourt

As we announced last week, a new expert has joined the SpanglishBaby family and we couldn’t be more excited! Her name is Liza Sánchez and her area of expertise is bilingual education. She received her MA in Education at UC Berkeley and has spent many years teaching in both public and independent schools. She is the founder and Board Chair of Escuela Bilingüe Internacional (EBI) in Oakland, California. EBI is the first independent school in California to offer a Spanish-English dual language program, extending from pre-K through 8th grade. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area and is fluent in Spanish and English, speaks conversational German and can understand quite a bit of French, Portuguese and Italian.

Liza Sánchez

Liza Sánchez

As if all this weren’t enough, another super interesting thing about Liza is that she’s a mom to four multilingual daughters between the ages of 2 and 18. Talk about going through the stages in this journey! Here’s how Liza describes her household situation when it comes to languages: “We speak Spanish at home, English in the community and German with my mother who they see frequently. My five and seven-year old also attended a German preschool where my 2 year-old will soon go. My oldest is now learning her fifth language. She learned Spanish at home and is now studying Spanish literature in school, she attended a French-American school, studied German in high school and with my mother and is now learning Arabic. She’s one lucky kid.”

Wow! Sounds amazing and inspiring, right?

Ok, on to this week’s question and answer:

Will translating everything overwhelm and confuse my child?

This week’s question came from Marianna Coll who lives in Los Angeles with her 27-month-old girl and husband. They are both from Venezuela and use the mL@H method.

“We are the proud parents of a bilingual girl who is absorbing both cultures at a very fast rate. In occasions I find that I am the only one who can fully understand her since she switches so much back and forth from both languages.

At her toddler group, one of the teachers communicated to me that at this age she shouldn’t know as much as she does, she knows her colors really well, most in English and recognizes shapes and all the letters of the alphabet. This she does solely in English. Sometimes I repeat the word or the letter in Spanish, but I don’t want to overwhelm her. With the numbers, once she processed them in English, she started counting then in Spanish and I feel that she will do the same with the rest.

My question is: should I repeat everything in Spanish after she says it in English? Since I know that many of her friends are not near knowing the letters, I don’t want to confuse her and over-saturate her little brain that absorbs so much. Or, should I let her assimilate it on her own like she did with numbers and is starting to do with colors?

Another thing is that the school that we chose none of the teachers speak Spanish and I am OK with that because I am really happy with the school that we chose, we can give her Spanish at home, that can be our special thing, so I don’t want her to feel left out and not being able to communicate, there is a little girl in her school that her parents only spoke in Hebrew to her and she is having a really hard time understanding and participating in class.


Dear Marianna:

Congratulations on raising a bilingual child! As you have already experienced, it isn’t easy. In fact, it can be quite challenging to maintain your native language as your child grows. There is so much English surrounding them that it can become difficult to assure they receive adequate opportunities to use their home language. Since your child is in an English environment at school, you and your husband will need to continue to use only Spanish with her at home. It sounds like she is already speaking quite a bit of English since you are feeling the need to repeat what she says in Spanish.

It is best to avoid becoming a translator. She needs to be able to think in each language independently. In addition, you will need to encourage her to use only Spanish with you. That might mean not responding when she addresses you in English thereby forcing her to use Spanish. Don’t be worried that she might not know how to say something. She’ll find a way to let her desires be known without using English.

Your main concern seems to be about overwhelming your child and confusing her with both English and Spanish. I want to assure you that it is not possible to over-saturate her brain with too much language. Most children around the world learn 2 if not 3-4 languages simultaneously. Children have even been documented learning up to 5-6 languages simultaneously with no problem. Your daughter, at her age, is a powerful language-learning machine. Her brain is wired to take it all in. That is her job right now and it appears she is doing a very good job of it.

According to Dr. Susan Curtiss, a Professor of Linguistics at UCLA who specializes in the way children learn languages:

“…the power to learn language is so great in the young child that it doesn’t seem to matter how many languages you seem to throw their way…They can learn as many spoken languages as you can allow them to hear systematically and regularly at the same time. Children just have this capacity. Their brain is just ripe to do this…there doesn’t seem to be any detriment to…develop(ing) several languages at the same time.”

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association confirms this belief:

“Children all over the world learn more than one language without developing speech or language problems. Bilingual children develop language skills just as other children do.”

It sounds like your child is well on her way to becoming bilingual. She is lucky to have such dedicated parents who are ensuring her success. I wish you much luck!

If you want more info about bilingual education, you can also find Liza blogging about it at Bilingual Talk.

Do you have a question for our experts? Remember no question is too big or too simple. So, to send us your question, please click here or leave a comment below. Thank you!

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