Is bilingualism hurting my niece’s language skills in both Spanish and English? Are two languages causing her to have low verbal skills?

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Dear Dr. Gupta,
I am not sure what to do about my niece’s English and Spanish. She has grown up in a bilingual environment. Her Mom speaks to her only in Spanish and her Dad in a mix of English and Spanish (both are native Spanish speakers and my brother (her Dad) was born in the Dominican Republic like most of the family but moved to the U.S. at a young age so is a native English speaker as well). Her grandparents, who were her caregivers until age 3, only speak to her in Spanish. I speak to her also mostly in Spanish but sometimes English- I see her usually several times per week.
She turned 4 in October and started an English-speaking preschool in New York City about 1 year before. Up until this past summer, she was clearly Spanish-dominant but with the influence of school she has become English-dominant, despite her Spanish language environment at home. The teacher recently asked us if she was fluent in another language. Whereas before this summer, it would have been Spanish, because my niece has become more English-dominant, it wouldn’t be accurate to say she was fluent in Spanish anymore. Her teacher told us that her verbal skills are below other kids of her age, which would make sense if she were fully bilingual. But she’s not any longer. The teacher also noted while she can get her point across, she can not really convey a lot of what she wants to say and grows frustrated.
Now for the question: I was committed to speaking just Spanish to her as I know she will learn English in school, just like I did. However her frustration level in self-expression concerns me. Should her Dad and I switch to English with her exclusively so that she can be strong in at least one language? Isn’t it better she can speak one language strongly rather than being weak in both languages? – Lisette

Dear Lisette,
I hope I am right in thinking that your niece has been in an English-speaking preschool for a year. You don’t say whether she goes there every day, or just part time. Let’s assume that she goes there part time. Clearly she has learnt plenty of English, so that you now see her as English dominant. That is as it should be.
It is quite common for children of this age to reject their home language and just want to speak the language of their friends and their school. As long as she is happy for you and her father to speak Spanish to her, you should keep on with Spanish. Speaking Spanish to her will not damage her English at all. Growing up with two languages does not cause any problems with either language.
However, I am a little worried that this child’s skill in Spanish has declined and that the teacher also thinks her English is not progressing well. You have to look at her total language skills across the two languages –have you noticed any frustration yourself when she is with people who speak both Spanish and English? Or is this just something that happens in preschool?
Your brother and his wife need to speak to the teacher again and find out exactly what happens in the classroom that causes her concern. Is something at school worrying your niece? I would also suggest that you see your family doctor. Is her hearing all right? Can she see properly? Could there be a problem that is causing her language skills to decline (if they are)? You may need to request an assessment from a speech language therapist. Make sure that the professionals you consult are supportive of bilingualism.
Having two languages does not cause problems. But a bilingual child can have other problems and need some help.

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Anthea Fraser Gupta is a sociolinguist with an interest in how children learn to talk. She was born into a monolingual environment in Middlesbrough, England, but enjoyed learning about languages from an early age. She gained a B.A. in English Linguistic Studies and Archaeology at the University of Newcastle, then went on to do an M.A. in Linguistics. She left Newcastle in 1975 to work in Singapore, where she encountered a society in which multilingualism is usual and expected. In Singapore nearly all children come to nursery school already able to speak 2 or 3 languages. While lecturing in the linguistics of English at the National University of Singapore, she did a doctoral degree at the University of York, looking at the language acquisition over two years of four Singaporean children who were growing up with four languages. In Singapore, she also married a man from a multilingual family from India. She returned to England in 1996 to the School of English at the University of Leeds, where she taught courses on both English language and bilingualism until her retirement in 2010. Anthea has had experience in a range of multilingual and multicultural societies and families. She has published books and articles on English, especially the language use of children in Singapore, and has also produced a novel for children set in Singapore. She is deeply interested in child development and believes that the most important thing in raising a child is to provide love and stimulation, regardless of what language or languages are learned.

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