Lopsided Language Development

January 13, 2011 By: erik Category: Musings, News, Parenting 422 views

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Spain and USA Flags MergedNora’s Spanish has taken some leaps and bounds in the past couple weeks, yet her spoken English is lagging behind, and I can’t help but blame myself for it. In the mornings, when I care for her for 3-5 hours depending on when she gets up, I speak only English to her, except when we are around Spaniards in the grocery store. She, however, chooses to speak Spanish to me. There are some exceptions. When she asks for a cookie, she says “Doh-chi!“, and when she wants to get down off of something (e.g. chair, sofa, stroller), she typically says, “Down!”, although she has recently taken to saying “Al suelo!” (to the floor).

Part of the problem, I think, is that I understand her Spanish and, although I try to force her to say it in English, sometimes obey her commands by accident. When I repeat what she’s asked for in English, I often get back a “Sí­!“, as in, “Duh, that’s what I just said!” Getting her to say “Yes” instead of “Sí­” is yet another battle.

Over the Christmas holidays, she has spent a lot of time with her Spanish grandparents. Her grandmother has the habit of talking to Nora constantly, even if she’s not in the same room, and often narrating whatever Nora is doing. This is incredibly annoying to all the adults around, but is exactly what Nora needs for language acquisition. That level of interaction and constant talking is just not something I’m capable of. I had a hard time forcing myself to talk to her when she was an infant because, while she wouldn’t understand, she needed to hear my voice.

She is capable of forming full sentences with subjects, verbs and objects in Spanish, but can’t yet string more than one or two words together in English. Today she said, “Bebe tíº vino, Poppy,” telling me to take a sip of wine. Normally that’s a command you don’t have to tell me twice, but I made her get out a grunting approximation of “drink”, which is seriously more complex than “bebe“, before I complied.

I suppose this goes on the long list of trivialities of childhood development that parents fret about needlessly that mean nothing in the long term, but I’d be curious to hear comments from other bilingual parents.

  • Our kids’ language development has been uneven, but then most kinds of development are uneven in my experience. Since we’re both minority languages (neither English nor Italian are the languages of the country where we live), the girls get roughly even exposure to both of them, but they also picked up French when they were at a French-speaking crí¨che. Our eldest prefers English, even to the extent that she’s expressed a preference for living in the UK when she grows up because they speak English there. Number two is more comfortably bilingual.
    I think it’s fair to say that if we were living in Italy their English would suffer, and there’s only so much that one anglophone parent, plus a few friends and a lot of DVDs can do to balance that out. The important thing is that it not become a source of conflict or resentment. Nora will end up speaking English just fine, even if at times it seems she’s racing ahead in Spanish.

    • erik

      That’s exactly the kind of comment I was hoping for. Thank you, Simon.

  • I just think it’s fantastic that after all your concern over her language development, she’s rocketing ahead so fast and speaking in grammatically-correct sentences. Lots of monolingual kids aren’t able to string that many words together correctly at her age.

  • Don’t worry, she’ll catch up in English. Our kids speak English quite well, although they nearly always answer us in Spanish, even when we are speaking to them in English. Ro is more willing to speak to us in English, but Carmen just ignores us and answers in Spanish, although she has a better accent. But when they are with my Mom, they speak exclusively in English, because they know that otherwise she won’t understand them. To each other, they speak in Spanish, which seems pretty natural. Carmen and Rocí­o read at levels comparable to American kids of the same age…well, except things like Shakespeare, which Carmen would have at school if we lived in the U.S., but I’m happy enough to see her reading regular novels. Vio isn’t a reader, so I’m just happy when she reads in Spanish….I swear if I hadn’t given birth to her, I’d think she wasn’t my kid, because everyone in both our families reads. All three watch movies and TV in English and have no problem understanding….they even get The Big Bang Theory, and that’s not exactly easy to understand for non-native speakers. So, basically, what I’m saying is, don’t stress too much about it. Just keep doing what you’re doing. And maybe when she’s older you can send her to spend time with your parents…we usually send ours to my Mom for about three weeks a year, and that’s great for their English, and great for us too. Three weeks without kids…holy smokes, we can actually go to the movies!

    • erik

      Thanks for that. I’ve been wanting to ask you about your daughters’ use of language.

  • Paul Rasmussen

    Three weeks! Holy cow!! OK, but toilet train her first.

    If I remember correctly Erik, your use of English at age two was pretty much the same as Nora’s current use of Spanish. Don’t worry so much. Leave the not-understanding-when-you-speak-Spanish to those of us who are better qualified. Make her think Daddy knows everything. It doesn’t last, but it is fun while it does.

    • erik

      You’re so smart, Dad!

  • Our situations have been more like Simon & Paola’s than yours & Marga’s, with both of our mother tongues being minority languages in the places we’ve lived since our boys were born. We’ve noticed some interesting variations in our boys’ willingness to speak language x versus language y or z as they’ve grown. Initially we were very good about the OPOL thing — ‘one parent, one language’. OPOL has its limitations, though, if both parents aren’t functionally bilingual. Magda was dismayed at how unwilling two-year-old Adam was to speak Polish to her — we both can speak English, whereas my Polish is, let’s say, limited.

    There’s some theoretical underpinning to this topic that may give some encouragement. Language acquisition theory has it that multilingual kids are remarkably adept at many meta-linguistic skills, and one of them is determining relative status of their languages, which includes appropriateness to a given situation. It’s to be expected that Nora sees Spanish as higher status; both parents speak it, as do abuelas, people on the street, in Chino-shops, etc. If she hears English only from her papa, far-flung relatives, and occasional visitors, of course she’s identifying it as a lower priority. This doesn’t mean she won’t become perfectly fluent, just that she (correctly, given her situation) identifies Spanish as more immediately deserving of precious cognitive space.

    As she progresses she’ll relent as her ability to adapt grows. Six-year-old Adam LOVES to speak Polish now, while four-year-old Alek still favors either English or Bulgarian. Neither one, though, will speak Polish or Bulgarian to a Pole or Bulgar who lets them see that they can communicate in English — we live in an anglophone enclave, and both parents are fluent in it, so unless (until?) we move to Poland, English is going to be our boys’ ‘first’ language — they may speak others just as well, but pragmatically they’ll favor English as being more ‘useful’. As Nora’s experience widens, so will her interest in using all the languages she’s exposed to, though she’s likely to continue seeing Spanish as job #1. But there’s no way she will not recognize the value of English as she grows up with you, visitors, relatives, and visits to English-speaking places, nor fail to become fully fluent with such an erudite anglophone papa.

    • erik

      Thanks, sgazzetti. You make perfect sense as usual.

      • Can’t quite tell if that’s sarcasm.

        • erik

          It wasn’t. I’m really grateful. 🙂

  • José

    I can only say I have Brazilian cousins with Uruguayan father (my uncle) They speak Portuguese all the time even if their father talk to them is Spanish, but they switch to Spanish when talking to us. Their accent is perfect and they understand Spanish perfectly too. I think you shouldn’t worry much, Nora will learn English. Maybe some vacations in the states and some English movies will help.

  • Jeanie

    I think Nora is very lucky to be getting a bilingual start in life. I grew up with a father whose native language was Russian, but he never spoke Russian to us as we were growing up in the 1950’s and to be Russian in the U.S. was not something you advertised or at least my father felt cautious about that in those cold war, anti-communisty years. My mother did not understand or speak Russian. The Russian I heard was the “secret” language spoken between my father, my aunt and my grandparents. Even with that little exposure, I can say the few Russian words and phrases I know with a pretty good accent, I can pick out Russian very easily when I hear it and I even understand a tiny bit. What I regret now is that my dad did not speak to us in Russian even though my mom didn’t speak it. I think we would have picked up enough so that we would have some facility with it. In our area there are lots of Russians and when I hear them, I feel as though I should be able to answer them in Russian or join in their conversation, but I can’t. Perhaps I should have studied Russian in school, but I wasn’t that ambitious and it wouldn’t have been the same as having my dad speak to me in Russian from birth. So, with you speaking English to her continually from birth, while understanding her Spanish, I think she has the best of both worlds. I fully expect that Nora will easily be able to use her English when she needs to, as your friends have already pointed out. It’s in her brain somewhere. We live in an area with lots of bilingual Asian kids. They speak English without a trace of accent, and they also can speak to their parents in the parents’ native language only most of them, as was pointed out above, choose to speak to or answer their parents in the language of this country – English . I agree with your dad, don’t make this an issue and insist she answer in English. Just go about your practice of mostly speaking to her in English and if you slip into Spanish or respond to her Spanish, no harm done. She’s already bi-lingual!

  • Jimy

    I was hassled quite a bit when I spoke to my daughters in English when they were younger. ” Pero pobrecita, te entiende???” Hello, does your kid understand you?? It was hard but I did it. Yes, I worried just like you, but don’t worry it will pay off. Books, movies, TV shows should be in English whenever possible. Trips back home are the best, that’s where they can really see how lucky they are!