I speak fluent Spanish and I work with students who are either monolingual Spanish or bilingual in Spanish and English. I’ve learned a lot about bilingual students over the years, but I think the biggest learning is that every student is different.
One thing that doesn’t change is the Golden Rule of Bilingualism. Have you ever heard of this “rule” before? It’s something that I didn’t know about until I had children of my own. The best part is that if you speak another language and you want your child to learn it, this works.
1) One parent speaks only one language to their child(ren) — If there is a parent that speaks Spanish as a native speaker and the other parent speaks English, the parent who speaks Spanish must always only speak Spanish to the child. No English from the Spanish-speaking parent ever. I know a family where the mom was French, the dad was a native Spanish-speaker, and they lived in the United States. The mom only spoke French to the kids even though she could speak French and English and the dad only spoke Spanish even though he could speak Spanish and English. The end result? The kids were tri-lingual.
2) The parent must be able to speak the language at the level of a native speaker — How I think of it: the level of language proficiency must be at the level of “automatic.” If Mom knows Spanish as a second language and has to think a lot about how to phrase things, she cannot be a strong language model for her child to develop spoken language. Using language should be easy and require no thinking or extra processing for the parent.
3) Code switching or code mixing is normal — It’s okay for bilingual children to mix the languages up when they are learning, but to me it’s a brief stage. Soon they learn when and with whom they need to speak a different language.
4) Silent periods exist — Many bilingual students do experience a “silent period” in which their brains are processing both languages. This happens when kids are learning more than one language and it is normal. But this does not occur for all kids. It also happens for kids coming from one language and moving into another country where another language is spoken and there is no support available to help retain the original language.
5) 95% (or more) of bilingual kids benefit from multiple languages at home, but some don’t… — Kiddos without speech or language issues can learn multiple languages at once. Most kiddos with speech and language issues can learn two languages at once. But in my almost ten years as a bilingual speech pathologist, I’ve found two subsets of kiddos with speech/language delays that may need only one language model. First, kids with limited language who are mixing both languages who don’t dominate in either language. Those kiddos might be better off choosing one language. Second, little kiddos (age 3-5) with severe apraxia benefit from one language. Again, this is based on my experience. I see these kiddos needing their home language exclusively (Spanish) because they are picking up bits of English without functional language use. If the family focuses on the home language, I’ve seen big progress in the students.
That’s all I have for you today — feel free to comment below with questions!