I was born and raised in the western United States. During my early 20s I developed an interest in the history, geography, and cultures of the western hemisphere. So one day while at the book store I picked up a book about Canadian society. I learned a number of things but what really stuck with me wasn’t strictly about Canada or Canadians. The author wrote that while growing up he remembered thinking it was quite normal for a child to speak French to his mother and English to his father and being surprised to discover it wasn’t. That’s it. That one statement made quite an impression on me.
Because of my interest in the Americas I dreamt of moving to Chile or some other Spanish speaking country. I wanted to explore the countries I was interested in, although I admit I also had developed an interest in the exposure to “hot Latinas” I would undoubtedly experience in Latin America. While attending the University of Colorado I discovered a study abroad program in Mexico so that’s where I ended up going. It turned out to be a good choice.
In the end I wound up traveling back and forth to Mexico quite a bit. I even moved there for a time. During my first trip to Mexico I had met the desired “hot Latina.” We are now married and live in the United States and have two children. Throughout all of this I remembered the statement from that Canadian author. When our first child was born there was no hesitation about whether we should raise our children with both Spanish and English from birth.
However, many people weren’t so sure it was a good idea. We kept hearing concerns such as “won’t she be confused by being exposed to both languages?” “She’ll wind up speaking Spanglish.” “It would probably be better to wait until she was already secure in English – then learn Spanish.” I just kept reminding myself of that Canadian author growing up bilingual from birth. However, to back up my position with facts, I also did a little research and discovered I had nothing to worry about.
It has been proven with studies that a second and even a third language isn’t really an obstacle of any kind for a baby. In fact, it’s the best time to start a second language. Because of the way the brain develops and the way children learn language and language sounds, the ideal time to start learning 2nd and 3rd languages is by age 3. But even if one waits until age 5 or 6 the child is in a good position to become fluent and free from foreign accent.
It is true that the child will do some language mixing, but as he or she ages the mixing will disappear. Just as a monolingual child eventually learns to say “you were hungry” instead of “you was hungry,” a bilingual child will learn to separate the languages and say “She’s my friend” and not “She mi amiga.” The best way to deal with this is to just be consistent and not mix languages yourself.
Yes, your infant and toddler may get things confused from time to time – but so do all children. If you wait until your child is 10 or 12 to avoid “confusion” you will just be making it more difficult for him to learn. Ten or twelve is better than eighteen or twenty, but just as it’s easier to learn a second language at ten rather than twenty, it’s also easier to begin at age 3 than at 10. One of the great obstacles to learning a foreign language is the fear of looking stupid. People hold back when speaking to avoid embarrassment. A child of 3 years is not going to have the same inhibitions as an eight year old and especially a fifteen year old. There is also the question of whether your teenager will even want to bother putting in the required effort with another language.
Pros and Cons
There is an abundance of anecdotal evidence that raising your child with two or three languages from birth will result in your child beginning to speak later than monolingual children. However, children generally start speaking anywhere from 9 months to three years of age. If a bilingual toddler starts speaking at age 3, it’s hard to say for sure if he would have spoken earlier had he been monolingual. Whether bilinguals speak later or not is very much debatable but even if it does mean your child will speak late, I believe it’s worth it. The advantages of being fluent in two or more languages can include simple convenience to more career options and a higher income. Studies have also shown that multilingual children are above average with regard to reading and writing skills.
The main concern you’ll have to consider isn’t how multilingualism will negatively affect your child, but instead all the extra work you’ll have to accept if you hope to succeed at fluency. At some point your child is likely to resist speaking the minority language, especially if there is no apparent need to speak it. Also, when it’s time to start learning grammar, spelling, and reading you will have to find a way for your child to learn the same with the second language. If you live in a community where it’s difficult to find resources in your child’s second language it will take that much more effort. You will want to find toys, books, movies, TV and educational materials in the second language. Also important will be other live speakers of the second language such as friends, babysitters, and tutors.
Bilingualism or trilingualism will take patience and a lot of commitment, but in todays would of globalization I believe the rewards outweigh the work, even in mostly monolingual societies.
A Final Note
As for my five year old daughter, she will be learning Portuguese soon. I had hoped to start her on her third language at age 3 but due to a variety of circumstances we have postponed it for about age 6. (A bit on the late side but still relatively early.) She seems to have a talent and interest in language so I’m hoping she will also want to pursue French and maybe Dutch. But by the time she’s ready to proceed to her fourth and maybe fifth language, I’m sure she’ll have developed her own opinions. Perhaps she and her brother will elect to learn Russian just so they could have their own private language.
TransDual Forensics is a Spanish and English language services company. In addition to providing Spanish language translation to and from English, we also provide both Spanish and English transcription services. Our areas of expertise include general, criminal justice, and forensic pathology translation. Visit our website for information about our interview, conference, audio, video, and Spanish document translation services.