(Photo courtesy of urbanworkbench, Flickr CC)
The first day of September?! Where did summer go??
I refuse to welcome Autumn, even though today marks the first day back to school for children in our city. Speaking of school, a reader wrote me a letter a few days ago, asking advice about a situation related to a change in her daughter’s language development due to starting a new school. Below you’ll find her letter and my advice.
Be encouraged, friends.
My little one speaks/understands only Spanish [began] an all English Montessori school…a little over a month [ago], and is already speaking English. She knows a few words, numbers and songs. A lot of her vocabulary is now very unclear, which makes it a little more difficult to communicate with her. We ask her to speak in Spanish, so we (my husband & I) can understand her.
My husband and I have been unsure of a few things. Whenever she says a word in English, we explain to her, “that word” (hot, careful, yes, etc.) is said in English at school. We then translate it in Spanish and ask her to say it in Spanish. Another example is, she’ll begin to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in English, but we will start to sing it in Spanish.
“Sigh” we don’t know if this is the right thing to do, when it comes to her speaking English/Spanish. Any advice or recommendations? We hope we aren’t confusing her.
¡Hola! Thanks so much for stopping by the blog and for sharing your family’s situation. First, I want you to know that yours is a concern shared by most, if not all, parents raising bilingual children.
Second, I just have to say how fortunate your daughter is to be attending a Montessori school. From what I’ve read and researched so far about Montessori, I know that she will be nurtured and cared for in a way that will allow her to grow at her own pace; that includes a consideration for her language development as a bilingual, even though she doesn’t receive Spanish input from her peers or teachers.
What I mean is – and this would be my first piece of advice – that Dr. Montessori wrote that parents and teachers should, above all, “follow the child.” Instead of dictating what and how and when a child should learn a concept, we should first wait, observe the readiness of the individual child, and take into account her needs before introducing a concept or activity.
So, in the case of your daughter, perhaps you could arrange a conference with her teachers in which you share your concerns about her mixing or confusing the two languages. As a former teacher myself, I enjoyed these meetings with parents because they enabled me to better understand the home environment of the child, which in turn helped me to better work with him/her in the classroom. Perhaps ask your daughter’s teacher if, when working on a vocabulary activity in English, for example, she ask your daughter, “Can you teach me how to say that word in Spanish?” It can be empowering and encouraging to a child to hear their teacher show an interest in their home life, as well as that the teacher wants to learn from the child.
My next piece of advice would be to remain consistent in your use of the home language (Spanish) with your daughter. Instead of framing it as a rule (“in this house we must speak Spanish”), gently and lovingly remind your daughter that the culture of your home includes speaking in Spanish. Every family has its own customs and culture, whether that’s doing the grocery shopping on Mondays or eating dinner together as a family, or reading books before bed. Those aren’t rules; they’re customs, carried out consistently, that contribute to the rhythm and flavor of your own family.
Consistency means when your daughter tells you a new English word she learned at school you first acknowledge you heard her (“Sí, hija, cuéntame.”); then thank her for sharing something new with you (“Gracias por enseñarme esa palabra.”); and, finally lovingly remind her how it’s said in Spanish (“En español se dice ____. ¡Ahora sabes decir esa palabra de dos formas!”). Acknowledging, thanking, teaching: a loving way to support what she’s learning in school, as well as reinforce your own family’s language culture.
In the case of her wanting you to sing an English song with her, if you know the words, then sing with her! First in English, then en español. Again, your acknowledging her development in English demonstrates you care about what she’s learning in school. Plus, you show her that it’s not just Spanish that matters, but both languages (you are working toward her bilingual development after all!).
Yes, your daughter may at times be confused and wonder what something’s called, but keep in mind that even monolingual children develop language at different rates, some faster than others. No one’s language trajectory is straight and perfect. That’s okay!
Lastly, language learning should be fun and always done in a gentle and loving way. If ever it becomes a burden for you or your child, then you know it’s time to pause, step back and observe the child (as María Montessori would say): what needs to change?
I hope I’ve been able to help you and your husband even just a little bit. I’m so encouraged to hear of your dedication to raising a bilingual child.
For more helpful information on raising a bilingual child, please visit Dr. François Grosjean’s blog here