Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Raising Multilingual Children, Starting with Pre-K

As both the mom of a bilingual toddler and an observer of how children in a Chicago Mexican immigrant neighborhood learn English, I have more to say about the AP story on how parents raise children multilingually.

My husband and I are each fluent in our respective native languages, Spanish and English, but neither of us is fluent in the other’s first language. Because my Spanish is a bit stronger than my husband’s English, our language practice falls somewhere in between minority language at home (MLAH) and one parent, one language (OPOL). My husband and I converse in Spanish until I run out of gas, then I switch to English and he follows along. If we need to switch back to Spanish, we do once I’ve recovered some energy or come up with a linguistic workaround. Each of us tends to speak to our son in our native tongue but not always. Through much of my son’s first year of life, his dad worked overnight shifts.  I spoke a lot of Spanish to him during the day while Papa was sleeping.

While I applaud the mom  in the lead of the AP story for setting the rule that everyone speaking to her daughter should speak the language they know best and only that language, it hasn’t always worked that way in our house. My husband is shy about speaking English; correct pronunciation is a struggle for him. He has enjoyed speaking it with my son, especially when the child was pre-verbal, partly because he felt he wouldn’t be judged on his mistakes. I thought giving my husband pronunciation practice by reading simple children’s books was a great idea, and I wasn’t worried that my son’s English would suffer from a few less-than-perfect doses of the language because I speak English fluently. Over the last year, many of our friends and family have commented on how much my husband’s English has improved!

Now, though, I’m thinking it’s time for my husband to push the Spanish and for us to try to speak more Spanish-only at home. My son understands both English and Spanish well, but he speaks much more English.

Over the next few months, he’ll be transitioning from a part-time nanny  to a daycare center. The nanny knows both English and Spanish but tends to speak to him in English. The daycare center has Spanish-speaking teachers and a dual-language preschool. However, I’m told  in the toddler/two room they “just focus on getting them to speak,” which presumably means English will be the focus.

Watching my son master language has been fascinating. His first word after mama and dada was agua (water). A few more Spanish words came along, then it was all English all the time for a while. We’ve recently seen a resurgence of Spanish, including counting. He counts more with his dad so “uno, dos, tres” came first. In English, he started counting “nine, eight, seven” first because I count backward when it’s time for him to get out of the bathtub!

Meanwhile, in watching the neighbor kids, I can see that by three or four of them have enough social English to talk with me on the street. They pick it up from their older siblings. The real challenge is whether they can read or not, in either language. Some do, some don’t.