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.

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5 thoughts on “Raising Multilingual Children, Starting with Pre-K

  1. Hi you wrote it so nicely.

    Just to share that I have a very similar experience with my children. My husband is Dutch and I am French. We live in The Netherlands, the children are going to a Dutch school but they are both fluent in French because of many contacts with the French family. And I reacted because of your name: figueroa that has the same meaning as mine figueres.

  2. I’d have to hope, Maureen, that the rule in the AP story would definitely not apply to every situation. It certainly doesn’t apply to mine. We, too, are trying to raise a multiliterate family, however, both my husband and I are native English speakers. I teach French and Spanish and hope my children will grow up trilingual (or polyglot). I truly hope that even though my French/Spanish skills are far from “native,” I am doing what is best for the linguistic abilities of our children. My husband is picking it all up slowly and surely, as well! He can’t produce much in conversation, but understands most things and does have the basic phrases down, for sure.

    As you said, the real challenge and incentive for language learning is literacy. I feel Literacy is the single most important ingredient for academic success. Being literate in multiple languages intensifies literacy in native tongues and boosts brain power. Enjoy your family’s language learning adventure…I know we are! :o)

  3. Thanks for sharing your stories of how your children are learning multiple languages! As I understand the brain boost research, the bottom line is if you have basic understanding of two language systems it’s a boost to overall cognitive functioning, so oral language is the most important piece for that purpose. If I get a minute to look more into the research I’ll blog about it.

  4. I am going through a very similar situation. Thanks for sharing. My son is 21months and is saying both Spanish and English words. I speak Spanish to him and his dad speaks English. He has taken a bit longer to start speaking but he has started to take off just this last month. I think the rule is to be consistent although maybe not always possible.

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