Incorporating English for bilingual toddlers
August 20, 2019 5:37 PM   Subscribe

My wife and I both speak English and Spanish, and we've been speaking to our 2.5-year-old twins exclusively in Spanish since they were born. At this point, they're both very talkative in Spanish, but we're wondering if or when we should start incorporating more English.

I've read a few other threads on here (a, b, c) that have been helpful, and the main takeaway I'm getting here and from lots of other anecdotes from friends and colleagues is that because we live in the US, our kids will just eventually pick up English. What we're wondering is if we should be more intentional about how we introduce English, and if there's any risk to them speaking less Spanish at this age. We're worried about them entering pre-k and being at a disadvantage because they don't understand English. Would they pick it up there? Should we prepare them better to understand English?

We live in Miami, and their daycare is primarily in Spanish. In terms of immersion, this is great, and we're both really pleased that they speak Spanish quite well. Our kids also hear English at home because that's what my wife and I usually speak to each other (my first language is English, hers is Spanish), but they still don't really understand much of it yet, despite knowing lots of basic words in both languages (colors, numbers, animals, etc). We can ask them (in Spanish), "how do you say X in English" and they'll get it a lot of the time, but reading stories in English or other questions outside of basic vocab still get puzzled looks.

Again, we're just wondering if there's anything we should be doing to introduce English more intentionally or if we should continue with as much Spanish as we can early on.
posted by 6and12 to Education (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My daughter was in the kindergarten class with 16 languages spoken among 30 children. Approximately 40% of the kids spoke no English at home upon entering the first day.

In two months, you could not distinguish the English fluency of any child in the class. Kids of that age are natural sponge is for language.
posted by blob at 6:11 PM on August 20 [4 favorites]

The one issue you might have is that depending on if you go the public school route, is that they might be labeled as "ELL" (English Language Learners) and that could send them down a path that might not be in their best interest- additional testing each year, specific separate classes etc. I know of a number of kids who this happened to when parents wrote Spanish as their first language, and it took them through 8th grade to finally test out of the label. My experience is with Boston Public Schools though, so Miami Public Schools might be different. One thing I know works for bilingual families is to set some parameters around when the different languages are spoken- so you speak English, and your partner speaks Spanish, or you speak English when outside the home and Spanish inside the home.
posted by momochan at 6:21 PM on August 20 [1 favorite]

We moved to Spain when our daughter was about 6 months old and moved back to the US when she was 5. We spoke only English at home while living in Spain. She understood English but would not speak it until about 2 weeks after moving back to the US.

It was like the Spanish language switch was turned off and English one turned on.

She attended a bilingual immersion program K-8 and is fluent in both languages as an adult.

I don't remember being asked about her first language by the school (was a public school) but perhaps that was because it was an immersion program.

In HS she tested out of Spanish and studied Chinese instead.

She did spend a couple of summers in Spain in her primary school years.

But I don't think her Spanish would be as fluent as it is without the immersion program.
posted by daneflute at 7:10 PM on August 20

The people I know who have raised bilingual children have all done in the same way: one parent exclusively speaks one language, the other parent exclusively speaks the other language. Raised this way, the children naturally and without thought address each parent in that parent's language.

I've heard that when a parent tries to speak two different languages to a child, the child picks one preferred language and always responds to the parent in that language, regardless of how they're addressed. Hence the approach describe above, where each parent picks a language.

I don't know if it's too late to adopt the one-language-per-parent approach, but I would look into it if you want your kid to be bilingual.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 7:34 PM on August 20 [5 favorites]

Since their daycare is Spanish, I would suggest you (with English as your first language) start speaking to them exclusively in English starting now.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:02 PM on August 20 [5 favorites]

I actually strongly disagree with the advice above to start speaking to them in English now and leave Spanish to their daycare, for two reasons.

One, living in the US you face a steep uphill battle if you want your kids to become adults who not only understand Spanish but also feel comfortable speaking it. Unless they attend bilingual schools, they're going to be communicating in English outside the home for the majority of their lives; unless they read a lot their English will quickly become more sophisticated and expressive than their Spanish; they might (this happens often but not necessarily) feel social pressure to stop talking with you in Spanish at all. A common outcome is that you'll speak to them in Spanish and they'll respond in English. Many parents eventually give up at this point and switch to English; others don't but the kids often continue not to feel comfortable actually speaking in Spanish, so their command of the language stays passive.

The other reason is that if you switch to English inside the home now because of their Spanish-language daycare and intend to switch back once they start attending an English-speaking school, you're likely to encounter strong resistance from the kids, for two reasons: they'll have gotten used to your whole relationship taking place in English, and speaking English - the language of their new friends, authority figures, and the outside world - will quickly start to be at least as easy to them as Spanish, and can start overtaking Spanish pretty fast. Since they'll have reason to expect you to speak English with them, they're likely not to want to play along with you when you decide to revert back to Spanish, and they'll be old enough that it might feel weird and unnatural to them.

I've watched this play out over a few generations in my family (and with me personally). I also know a lot of families where the kids not only hear the parents' language at home and at many of their friends' homes but also attend special preschool for speakers of that language, go to after-school programs in that language, and live in an area where there is an extremely large population of immigrants speaking that language - in short, about as ideal a situation in terms of language retention as possible - but their command of that language still grows weaker as they age, they rarely expand it, and they're not remotely as comfortable using it as they are using the majority language they learned outside the home. It really is an uphill battle.

I think the thing you're already doing, introducing the concept of two languages and asking how you say things in English, is both a good practice and really sufficient. When your kid goes to school tell them the school will be in English and that some kids don't know Spanish, so it's good to talk in school in English so that everyone can understand - but tell them that many kids do know Spanish and speak it outside school just like them, so they don't start thinking of Spanish as something to keep private at home or feel embarrassed about or minimize.

Definitely keep reading to the kids in Spanish and encourage them to keep reading in it as they grow older - it's one of the best ways to ensure that their vocabulary and syntax don't stay rudimentary.
posted by trig at 11:25 PM on August 20 [3 favorites]

I really can't second trig's answer enough, because it perfectly accords with my own experience. I have a younger sibling who is exactly as trig describes -- able to passively understand my parents' heritage language but really only able to respond in English.

I am not a Spanish speaker but a (Mandarin) Chinese speaker, but my experience has a lot of similarities -- both my parents are immigrants to the US who speak Mandarin, they attempted to only speak Mandarin at home with me, I grew up in a place (suburban Los Angeles) where there were lots of kids who looked like me, lots of kids of immigrants, plenty of Chinese-language infrastructure and very little stigma against bilingualism or heritage languages, I went to weekend Chinese school for 10+ years, and I still ended up an English-dominant bilingual who (if he has kids) is unlikely to speak Mandarin well enough to pass it on to them.

There are videos of me at age 5, in kindergarten, in which my spoken Mandarin is better than it has been ever since, in my whole life. (In some ways, I'm more competent in French, a language I started learning in the 8th grade, than Mandarin! But that's a separate story.)

Assuming your children are starting a "normal" English-language school once in kindergarten, English will quickly become the dominant language for them outside the home and in all other contexts -- interaction and socialization with their peers both in person and online are overwhelmingly going to be in English. I know Spanish is more present in Miami than elsewhere, but there are also pretty substantial social cues that English is the majority language and kids will pick up on these kinds of things pretty quickly.

Personally -- and I don't have kids, so take this with a grain of salt -- I don't think the one-parent, one-language model is really necessary or even helpful in this instance, because one of the two languages you are trying to pass on (English) is the dominant majority language of society. It's an uphill battle to pass on heritage languages in the US even when both parents speak it, and you want to maximize their language exposure. (It'd be different I think if say, Parent A spoke Spanish, Parent B spoke French, and you wanted to pass on both Spanish and French to them while living in the English-dominant US.)

Again, I'm only speaking from personal experience, but in my thinking of my peer American-born children of Mexican, Korean, Indian, Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants, the vast majority of both parents attempted to speak solely in their heritage language and I would say that 90% of them are still clearly and strongly English-dominant.
posted by andrewesque at 4:06 AM on August 21

Came back to add: upon rereading the OP I realize that my thoughts on one parent, one language might come across as judgmental of your situation — it’s absolutely not what I mean to do and I apologize if that’s the case!

I just wanted to express my feeling that if you are trying to raise English and Heritage Language bilingual children in the English-dominant US, that the amount of English exposure after school age is really overwhelming and you want to do anything you can to maximize continued exposure and use to the Heritage Language.
posted by andrewesque at 4:21 AM on August 21

I’m monolingual English, had a Spanish-speaking babysitter from whom my kids picked up some but not much at all Spanish (that is, they understood bits and pieces, but didn’t say anything) and put them in a dual language immersion elementary school starting in kindergarten where they picked up functional Spanish without a lot of difficulty. So, sort of the flip side of your kids, but with less preschool Spanish exposure than yours have English exposure. Based on that, I would go on exactly as you are, and trust that an English language kindergarten will get them to complete fluency in English before it’s an academic problem.

You might want to be slightly pushier with the school about not confusing temporary language learning issues with academic incapacity than you might have been otherwise, but that shouldn’t be an issue for long.
posted by LizardBreath at 5:43 AM on August 21

If you were literally anywhere else in the US I would tell you to keep doing what you're doing, but Miami is a (very) special case. I was genuinely shocked when I lived there for half a year by the extent to which Spanish was the everyday language of all levels of society. It almost felt like being in the Netherlands, where many people speak fluent English but the second you leave they revert to their native tongue.

That is to say, anywhere else in the US just by being out in public your kids would hear a lot of English, but that's not necessarily the case in Miami. I like Winnie the Proust's idea: you speak your native English to the kids, and your wife speak her native Spanish to the kids.
posted by crazy with stars at 9:02 AM on August 21 [1 favorite]

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