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Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

My 3-Year-Old Understands Spanish but Only Speaks English. Help!

How to maintain Spanish with my toddler and infant via Shutterstock

Dear Dr. Gupta,


I need some advice. I am from Guatemala but live in Texas. My husband and I have a three-year-old and a two- month-old. We want to raise our daughters bilingual. Our decision was that I would speak in Spanish and he in English. Reality is my three-year-old understands Spanish but only speaks in English. All of her friends and family around speak English. I find myself speaking to her in English too!


We want her to speak Spanish. Any advice for me??

– Sustaining Spanish

Dear Sustaining Spanish,


By the time children are three or four years old, most of them want to be like their friends.  For bilingual children, this often means that they want to speak only the majority language. They reject the language that makes them seem different. Sometimes, parents just have to accept this.


But living in Texas, you should be able to keep Spanish alive in your children.


Don’t worry too much about your elder child speaking only English. Don’t criticise her for doing this.  But, as long as it doesn’t upset her, do continue to speak Spanish, even if she answers in English. Your younger child needs to hear Spanish too.


Another thing to do is to seek out other Spanish speakers, especially Spanish speakers with three year olds.  Your daughter needs to hear other people speaking in Spanish. It will be especially good if she has playmates who speak Spanish.


Can you find a playgroup or a preschool that supports Spanish? Are there shops or cafes you could go to with the children where Spanish would be a natural language?


What about your family? Any possibility of visits? Or Skypeing?


Buy books, sing songs, watch films in Spanish.  Make it interesting and make it a normal part of life.


I hope this is useful.  And remember, even if your children don’t speak any Spanish, perhaps for years, if they hear it, it will be there deep in their brains and can come back to life later on in formal classes.


Dr. Gupta

© 2013, 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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