Welcome back to another Monday of Ask an Expert-our very popular weekly series where you get to have your questions answered by one of the outstanding experts on bilingual matters that have joined the SpanglishBaby panel.
We welcome any and all questions you might have regarding bilingual and cultural matters. The experts are well-known educators, speech therapists, authors and researchers specializing in bilingualism and culture. Learn more about them and send us your questions here. Why would you pass up FREE expert advice?
Answering today’s question is Liza Sánchez, 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. You can also find this mamá of four multilingual daughters blogging at Bilingual Talk.
Allison, who follows SpanglishBaby from her hometown in Canada, wrote to us about her concern:
Should I Speak in Spanish to my Child if I’m not Fluent in the Language?
I am an English-speaking Canadian and my husband, from Costa Rica, speaks both Spanish and English fluently. Our son is 14 months old and my husband speaks only Spanish to him and I speak mostly English to him. I do try to mix in the little Spanish that I know, as I am trying to learn the language. Our community language and the language my husband and I speak to each other in English. I am worried that I am going to confuse my son or teach him the wrong pronunciation and grammar with my broken Spanish? Is it better for me just to speak only English to our son? I am worried if I do he wont’ get enough exposure to Spanish. Thanks for your help!”
You ask a very important question and one with which I believe many parents struggle. Should you speak to your child in Spanish even though you are not fluent in the language? You are right to be concerned that he may not get enough Spanish exposure to become fluent if he is only speaking Spanish with dad and no one else. That being said there are advantages and disadvantages to you speaking with your child only, or mostly, in Spanish.
- Your son will have more exposure to Spanish. Even though your grammar isn’t perfect, it is better than nothing. Trying to use what Spanish you have can help him expand his vocabulary and practice using the language. There is no need to worry about him getting confused as long as he has other exposure to fluent Spanish-speakers; dad, Plaza Sésamo, books on tape, other Spanish-speakers etc.
- Speaking in Spanish will send a strong message to your son about how important speaking Spanish is to you and your family. Children who speak languages besides English need to develop pride in being bilingual. This starts at home, where parents pass along their values. Remind him frequently how lucky he is to speak more than one language and how many adults wish they could. In fact, mom had to work really hard to learn Spanish but she sure is lucky she did.
- Time spent speaking with your child in Spanish is time not speaking to your child in English. If both of your languages are fairly equally developed it doesn’t really make a difference but your native language is English and you therefore have a much stronger connection and deeper understanding of the language. When you speak to your child in Spanish it is likely basic language, fairly simple sentences and a limited vocabulary. Your ability to communicate in English is much more advanced. You can speak using complex sentence structures and an extensive vocabulary. The language richness you can offer your child in English is significantly more advanced than what you can offer him in Spanish.
- When you speak to your child only, or mostly, in Spanish you can’t share the richness of your linguistic past. I am sure you remember many of the songs, rhymes and games you grew up with. There is so much of our culture that is tied to language. When you don’t use your native language, a bit of that culture also disappears. That is why it is so important for many immigrants to communicate with their children in their native tongue. They want to share their culture, their songs, games and traditions. You may find eventually that you are unable to share the depth of your culture with your son when you are limited by only speaking in Spanish
So what to do? Well, I am sorry to say that there is no one right answer. I can tell you my experience and how I chose to approach a similar situation. I also grew up speaking English and learned Spanish. Although my Spanish is considered fluent, I have to admit it will probably never reach the level of my English ability. When raising our four children, my husband, who is a native Spanish-speaker, and I only spoke to them in Spanish for the first few years of their lives. All of them attended bilingual schools. Once they reached kindergarten age I basically switched from using Spanish to English. This has worked quite well for my children and me. I feel that they were able to get a solid foundation in Spanish, which they continue to get in school. Now that they are older, I am happy to have the opportunity to share so many things with them in the language in which I grew up. That is who I am after all.
It won’t be easy keeping your son speaking Spanish, especially when he is not surrounded by it. My best advice is to provide as many opportunities as possible for him to hear and speak in Spanish. Read to him, show him movies, join a Spanish-language playgroup, look for Spanish-language preschools and a bilingual elementary school and read him lots of books in Spanish. Your son needs a lot of Spanish exposure in order to become bilingual, but it might not necessarily have to come from you. But if you feel, given your situation, that speaking to him in Spanish is the right thing, go right ahead. He will grow, learn and develop just fine either way.