My husband and I live in Chicago and both speak Spanish and English. My native language is English and his is Spanish. We have both spoken to our 19-Month-old daughter in Spanish since birth as we figured that eventually she would inevitably learn English from her grandparents, friends, media etc. She also attends a Spanish speaking daycare except for once a week when her English-speaking grandmother takes care of her.
We were convinced we were making the right choice of speaking to her solely in Spanish until I realized that for kindergarten she will have to take a test to determine her eligibility for certain (gifted/magnet) programs in the Chicago public school system. If she does not speak the school language, English, at the time of these tests I am worried she will be at a disadvantage.
Although I know this is a few years away, I am wondering if I should start speaking to her in English so that she is bilingual at five years old.
I appreciate your help in advance!
Thank you for submitting your question and for taking the steps to plan ahead for your daughter’s language journey! Chicago Public Schools is actually where my journey as a dual language educator started so I am thrilled to have the opportunity to answer this question for you.
I second you in your desire to ensure that your daughter has the ability to put her best foot forward whenever challenged with an assessment. Here is the good news: You can still help her learn her school language without necessarily changing your language policy in your home!
As you pointed out, you still have a long road ahead until the time comes and your daughter’s language vocabulary is going to explode from now until then. Therefore, there are many opportunities that you can intentionally provide so that her exposure to English helps her reach the level of fluency that you desire.
The presence of a community language is strong, and it is something that you will always be up against. I would hate for you to make a switch and then regret it. Once you make the switch to a community language, it is really difficult to go back. Something to also consider is that your daughter may too regret that you made the switch.
With that in mind, let’s get tactical on what you can do to ensure she is getting the right dose of English while you continue to speak Spanish to her. You can enrol her in activities in the community. These opportunities will increase as she gets older and more programming is available for her age group. You can set up play dates with English-speaking children. You can expose here to media via videos, apps, YouTube to name a few. You will essentially do the same things we try to do to infuse more of the target language but instead with the community language. Here are a few more ideas on how to introduce the community language without it coming from you.
My hunch is that you will find that she will pick up English even faster than you can imagine. The community language has a tendency to creep up when you least expect it. Just make sure that you find a balance where you still present opportunities for her to keep up her Spanish. It’s a juggling act for sure but you will find a rhythm that works for the family.
Remember that language learning is a journey. You can still decide to switch your strategy later on if her abilities in her futures school language are not where you would like them to be. You can make a decision today and revisit it in six months or a year depending on her progress. For now, I would recommend that you still continue to lay a foundation in Spanish and reassess in a few months.
Keep up the good work with the Spanish, it will pay off!