Being proficient in English but not lose heritage language

Hi. I am reaching out to get advice on how to help my son build his English proficiency skills but not lose his Spanish language skills that he has been building since birth. He is currently five years old. He does speak English to a certain degree but his vocabulary is not too strong. My wife and I are worried that he not connecting or making friends at school because he does not understand the others kids or is not able to communicate fully. We feel that he picks up some words here and there but not enough to connect and make friendships. 

We are now debating if it makes sense to speak to him more in English than Spanish or at least read to him more in English and have him watch his tv shows in English as well. He will be starting dual immersion school in Spanish and English next year but again, we are afraid that his English are not to par which will damper his future in making friends.

As a background, my wife and I are both English and Spanish native speakers. 

Any suggestions on this matter, would be greatly appreciated it. Thanks

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Thanks for sharing. Your post resonated with us as we are in a similar, but not identical situation. We're raising our 2.5 year daughter in Spanish and English with the goal that we repair some of the linguistic and cultural ruptures that happened with our parents generation.

I speak to her 90% in Spanish and my partner about 30-50% in Spanish. She was at an all-Spanish daycare from 7-14 months and is now at an English-speaking nursery with a few (but not exclusively native-Spanish speaking teachers who mostly address her in English. They do some singing and books in Spanish but it's minimal and I worry about the opposite: that her English skills are far surpassing her Spanish skills. 

With both languages we've found that her vocabulary has increased immensely by reading lots of books to her, taking care to find ones that she is into (and wants to read over and over again) with the reading level/vocab at a slightly higher level than where she's at. It has not happened overnight, but she constantly rises to the challenge of getting the pronunciation and the context and meaning. Whatever language it's in, I (or she) will translate words, sentences, or story beats/moments into the other language. One example of this is the writer Beatrix Potter (Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, etc). The books are a bit dated but she's really into the stories and now can recite about ⅔ of the text as we read,  including a lot of the bigger 3-4 syllable words. Mind you, we've read some of these books at least 50 times. 

We've also found a few good cartoons (Pocoyo in particular) that we let her watch in Spanish to keep her ears perked up, especially since she's only getting Spanish communication from us (and Hector Lavoe). I do have major reservations about screen time but with two busy parents and no family around, the iPad has been useful. 

We haven't delved too deeply into language apps: I'm hoping to continue with paper/analog books and materials for at least a while longer until I see an app that is really engaging and can somehow justify even more screen time. 

I hope this is useful to you (and anyone else reading) and am grateful to have BPN as a rich space to share our experiences and resources as parents. 

Hello. I am writing as a person who grew up as an immigrant American. I immigrated to an English-speaking environment when I was 7. I had 2 years of primary school education in my birth country -- I can read and write in Mandarin Chinese and my vocabulary was at the time around 500-600 characters/words. My younger brother immigrated when he was 5 and was not old enought to receive reading and writing education in Chinese. My parents were not very intentional about preserving our native language. In my household, as the years progressed, our communication dynamics was the following: my parents would speak broken English (most of the mix was Mandarin) to us and we would respond in English. We were linguistically communicating at such low levels that even though my parents had a much higher vocabulary in Chinese and my brother and I have higher vocabulary in English, we would use very basic vocabulary to communicate with each other and did not explore more options. Later, as an adult, I thought that I had lost nearly all of my capacity to communicate in Chinese, but that was not the case. I was able to recover my reading and writing abilities on my own and have increased my Chinese vocabulary to include subjects that I am now interested in as and adult. My brother has not pursued the same goals, so he is only able to understand spoken Mandarin and at most only responds in simple words or short phrases. I am not sure how much this helps you in terms of establishing a strategy to preserve Spanish language in your household. I hope my story can help folks understand was missing in my household, there was a general attitude of not wanting to cultivate, communicate, make effort to communicate in the heritage language. 

I wanted to share my experience as a native English and Spanish speaker.  I was born to immigrants parents who only spoke Spanish to me at home.  Until I was about 3 years old, my exposure to English was somewhat limited due to my parents concern about their own fluency though I know I played with my English only speaking neighbors. I started nursery school at 3 where everyone spoke English.  At age five, I went to a dual-immersion bilingual school in English/French. For the first couple of years K-1st grade, it was about 70% French-30% English during the day.  My parents were concerned I wasn't getting enough English and sent me to summer school/camp to give me more exposure to English. Per my late mother, the director of the program told her I had no issues with speaking or understanding English and made friends easily enough. I have no memory of ever struggling to understand anyone in English and I have maintained my Spanish since my parents continued to only speak to me in Spanish at home. I wish I could say my French was still good but apart from my accent, my conversational French is at an elementary level. 

Have your son's teachers mentioned he doesn't understand the other kids and that's why he's struggling to make friends?  Has he otherwise struggled to be understood in English? Learning languages at a young age is a tremendous gift so it's wonderful that you're providing that opportunity to him. You wouldn't want to prematurely curtail that if you haven't fully explored every reason what's been challenging to him in developing friends.

Good luck.

I grew up in an immigrant community in which English was a second language. Among my peers, everyone became fluent in English quickly, through immersion at school and in popular culture, regardless of what language was spoken at home. The difference was that some among us, whose parents continued emphasizing the non-English language at home, developed fluency in both languages; those of us whose parents decided to prioritize English at home gradually lost our skills in the non-English language.  

My brother went into kindergarten not speaking a word of English but quickly picked it up and made friends. If you’re concerned in the meantime, I think watching TV and reading in English sound great. I would encourage you to continue reading to him in Spanish, too. 

Every family has a different set of circumstances that may change over time with respect to what their dual language life holds. Here's a great resource:

I just moved from France where I was teaching at an immersion bilingual preschool and encountered many families with the same issue but in French/English. Typically what we saw work the best was using the one-parent-one-language model where, for example, you speak exclusively English to your children and only respond if they speak English back to you, while your wife does the same but in Spanish. This requires a lot of discipline on the part of the parent, and being OK with your child be frustrated at you if you won't communicate with them how they want.

Given English is the majority language in the U.S., I would recommend that you and your wife continue speaking Spanish together and as a family while at home instead of English. Statistics show that once your child is of school-age (6+) in an English speaking school in an English speaking community that they will favor English over Spanish very quickly and their vocabulary will sky rocket. It will then be essential through the Primary school years to keep Spanish an important part of daily life. Ways to do this are speaking Spanish as a family and with other families or extended family, enrolling your kids in activities where Spanish is the main language (ex: a Spanish football club, etc.), exclusively consuming Spanish media content while at home, having a pet that only "speaks" Spanish. This is so that they find value in the language and are intrinsically motivated to speak it. 

Hope that's helpful!

Hi! Native Spanish speaker household here. We have a 3.5yo who quite luckily has picked up Spanish quite well- as it’s the language we speak at home, 100% of the time. Whenever my kid sneaks in words in English we talk about the Spanish equivalent and repeat the sentence. 
To speak English, I read mostly kids books in that language. Not simple ones, focusing on narratives with more complex vocabulary (Julia Donaldson for example). What we do with books is the first time I translate them into Spanish and read it like that two times and then read the book in English in the original and focus in translating and also providing meaning for words. 
We watch a nature documentary a week (BBC or other good quality), as it’s a slippery slope with screen time in my opinion. 
It is a lot of work but well worth it- kid is fully fluent in both languages. My worry is not English as growing up in an English speaking society it will happen by itself, it’s more keeping and maintaining the Spanish language heritage. 
Another important consideration we take is to have calls with the grandparents in Spanish to create that personal connection with the language. 
best of luck!