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Sunday, August 7th, 2011

Which method is best for raising bilingual kids when the main bilingual parent is not around much?


Dear Dr. Gupta,

I am a native English speaker who married a native Spanish speaker. We currently have one 10-month-old daughter and have another child on the way. For numerous obvious reasons, we want our kids to be bilingual, but we are very torn on which method to use. I speak a fair amount of Spanish, and my vocabulary is growing all the time (my husband and mother-in-law speak to me in Spanish almost exclusively). However, I am definitely not fluent in “adult” Spanish, I can definitely communicate and hold my own. While the OPOL method could potentially work for us, my husband spends very little time with our daughter and I feel fairly confident that she will not pick up Spanish in the 20 or so hours per week she spends with my husband. In addition, I am at home with her during the day, and we don’t have any Spanish-speaking family members in the area. I do plan to look into Spanish immersion schooling and play groups when she gets a bit older. So, we have pretty much been using the ML@H method since she was born. So far, this has been pretty effective … after all, when you have an infant, there isn’t a whole lot of communicating going on. We only play Spanish-speaking cartoons and only read to her in Spanish as well.

But recently I have begun to worry about my lack of Spanish vocabulary. I feel pretty comfortable and confident speaking the basics, but when I want to teach her something or explain to her why she can’t do something, I feel like her learning, vocab and understanding may start to suffer as she continues to get older. Plus, all the experts say you shouldn’t speak a language outside of your native tongue because you could teach the children wrong, and they can tell it’s not your primary language, etc. I have thought about mixing–saying what I can in Spanish and speaking English when I have to, but I am sure that has its downfalls as well. I don’t want to confuse her–I just want what’s best for her. I plan to continue learning the language, but I will not learn at the rate she will.

Any recommendations? –Don’t Know Which Language to Use

Dear Don’t Know Which Language to Use,

You don’t say where you are, but my guess is that you are in the USA. As you say that you plan to look at Spanish playgroups later, you must be in a place that has a Spanish-speaking community, even though you don’t have family members nearby. This is good.

You say that using only Spanish at home has been “pretty effective” so far, but your daughter is only 10 months old so it is early days yet.

I am a bit concerned that you say “when you have an infant, there isn’t a whole lot of communicating going on.” Although your daughter can’t talk back to you yet, she loves to hear people speaking to her and will already be able to understand a lot. She should be able to do some gestures in response to language. She may be able to look at her father if you ask her where he is, for example, or she may be able to clap her hands in response to a ‘clap hands’ song. She should be able to anticipate hiding and revealing in a peekaboo game. Within the next 6 months or so the first real word will appear (it may already have done so). There is a lot of communicating going on. Are you playing these traditional baby games with her using the Spanish equivalents of pat-a-cake and peekaboo? These games and traditional songs matter. My own feeling is that it is far better that you sing to her and play with her (in either Spanish or English) than that she watch Spanish cartoons.

It’s not the case that “all the experts say you shouldn’t speak a language outside of your native tongue because you could teach the children wrong, and they can tell it’s not your primary language”. Many parents speak to their children in a language that is not their native language. If the child learns something wrong, then as the child is exposed to other models, mistakes will be corrected. That doesn’t matter at all. What matters more is your relationship with your children, and your wish to give them a rich experience. There is more to learning than just learning languages.

You have already “thought about mixing–saying what I can in Spanish and speaking English when I have to.” This is a good idea and would not confuse her. People who live in bilingual communities do it all the time and get on fine. This will ensure that she continues to hear Spanish at home but will allow you to use more sophisticated language with her, with your own cultural norms.

I don’t think you can be the one responsible for your children’s Spanish. You need be free to express your own culture with them, and give them a rich linguistic experience. Outsource the Spanish by increasing the time they spend with natural Spanish speakers. How you do this will depend on where you are and what is possible.

Some suggestions:

(1) Maximise the amount of time your husband spends actually caring for your daughter without you being there.

(2) Where is your mother-in-law? Can you see more of her? Can she babysit? Come to stay?

(3) Find a Spanish-speaking mothers’ group. This will also provide your children with children of their own age who speak Spanish–this is vital for maintaining biligualism in children. It will also be good for your Spanish. And fun.

(4) Holiday possibilities? Mother-in-law?

(5) Hunt out Spanish-speaking social networks anywhere you can find them, especially in situations where there will be small children speaking Spanish.

You will see from my postings on the Ask-a-Linguist website that I am a great believer in doing what comes naturally. Bringing up children is complex and important and it is the whole person that matters, not whether they speak one language or two. The most important thing is to enjoy your children and to develop a good relationship with them. If your children can be bilingual, that’s good. But if they end up speaking little Spanish, it isn’t a terrible thing.

–Dr. Gupta

© 2011, Anthea Fraser Gupta. All rights reserved.

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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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