The Short-sighted Fear Driving “English Only” For Young Children
I had decided to raise my daughter to be bilingual in both English and Spanish since birth. In her early years, because English is the dominant language in our home since my husband does not speak Spanish, I supplemented my speaking with her in Spanish with play dates in Spanish, parent/child activities in Spanish and a mommy’s day out part-time preschool program in Spanish. During those years she sang songs all the time in Spanish and had a good working vocabulary in Spanish. However, by the time my daughter was a preschooler, my husband began to worry about my insistence on raising our daughter to be bilingual. He made note that sometimes our daughter would say something in English the same way it would be said in Spanish.
My husband (like many parents, teachers and pediatricians do) began to worry that, by raising our daughter bilingually, she would not speak good English but instead would continue to mix up words and phrases as we continue pushing bilingualism. His full sentiment came out during a parent interview with the Executive Director of a local private school we considered for our daughter’s kindergarten year. Luckily, the Executive Director at this school had experience and knowledge about bilingualism that eased my husband’s worries. He explained to my husband that what my daughter was doing with language was a very normal and temporary part of language acquisition. Importantly, the Executive Director assured my husband that being raised bilingually would not have any long term negative impact on our daughter’s ability to speak good English. Satisfied with a professional’s input, my husband never raised the issue again while he continued to actively support my efforts in raising our daughter bilingually. Unfortunately, not every family receives this level of well-informed feedback.
Many parents, educators and pediatricians view this mixed use of language with alarm, mostly due to their own lack of experience and knowledge from living in a dominant mono-linguistic society. As a consequence, many assume that such mixing of language is evidence that the input of any language other than English confuses the child or impedes a child’s ability to learn English. Sadly, I have heard and continue to hear countless stories from both parents and from adults who lost their second language as a child on how parents were advised to refrain from speaking the second language to the child due to fear that the child would not be able to acquire good English.
The fear of mixing up languages is powerful because it fuels fears that many parents already have–that their kids will not “fit in” and be picked on as a consequence, and that their child’s chances for long-term academic and career success will be limited– in other words, it ignites fear that their children will always have some form of deficit, either socially, academically or both. The reality is the exact opposite.
Unfortunately, when misinformed educators and pediatricians advise parents of English Language Learners to limit speaking to their children in their native language, the negative impact can include:
A detachment from extended family and culture. The loss of language creates a barrier that prevents the child from developing strong ties with parents and grandparents and other important family members who speak the language. This can negatively impact a child’s identity and create a sense of isolation towards both his heritage culture and the one he is being raised in. Without being able to develop strong family bonds and a strong sense of self, a child will lack the important infrastructure necessary to navigate a new and unfamiliar environment.
Potential delay in cognitive development if the parents are not proficient English speakers. Early cognitive development is directly dependent on stimulating interaction with caregivers. If parents who are not proficient in English are told by professionals to only speak to their children in English, it can severely restrict the parent/child interaction and the rich linguistic engagement that is needed for early cognitive development in their children. Instead, professionals should encourage parents to speak and engage with their child in ways that develop rich linguistic skills and personal connection such as in story telling, reading, and through play in the language most comfortable for the parents. Only through this rich and meaningful level of interaction, regardless of the language used, can a child develop strong cognitive skills that can then be transferred to the learning of other languages and other disciplines.
Each child goes through a natural language acquisition phase and mixing languages is a very normal part of this process. This phase, however, is very temporary and disappears as a child continues to develop linguistic skills in both languages. The important requirement for strong language acquisition is to have consistent quality input in both languages. Today, at age eight, my daughter speaks beautiful English and decent Spanish. Because Spanish is her second language and not her dominant one, she still adds English syntax to her Spanish and mixes up her verb conjugation from time to time. However, because she is in a dual language school and I continue to work with her in Spanish, I have no concern that with continued practice, she will work out those issues as well. By the time she is in middle school, she will be a strong bi-literate bilingual able to discuss, read and write on a broad range of topics in both languages. As a parent, the slight temporary linguistic mixing of languages early on is a very small price to pay for her to become a strong bi-literate bilingual, providing her with greater social, emotional and academic opportunities long term.
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