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3 yr old boy spanish/english, no real proficiency in either, help
Thread poster: jaymay
English to Spanish
Oct 6, 2005

My wife is mexican and I am american, We live in the states and we are both fluent in spanish and english. Grandma lives nearby and only speaks english, although she knows a few spanish words.

As an only child and living in a city where we don't really know anyone with prek kids my son has really only been exposed to us. We speak about 90% spanish in the household. and my son watches mostly english tv, cartoons, etc. Mostly english books, although we have mixed a few spanish ones in there.

Up until about a month ago he was only speaking a few spanish baby words and a lot of babble. We were a little concerned, but mostly we just chalked it up to a bilingual household.

A month ago he started pre pre k, After the first day we realized he didn't really understand english at all. so we started speaking mostly english to him. He has progressed some in that he knows more english words, but the reality is that he doesn't speak in either language. He seems to understand spanish better than english, but it seems clear that he doesn't understand either great.

He happily babbles on which makes us think that he thinks he is speaking correctly, but it is completely incomprehensible. When he babbles he is clearly telling a story or repeating a memory, but only every once in a while is something comprehensible.

He is able to repeat just about any one or two sylable word, but more than two sylables and it turns into a babble word with the correct ending. We teach him words, by pointing to items and saying the word, etc.

After reading this forum we've realized that we need to be more consistant with which language we speak. Occasionally we fall in to spanglish so we are going to make a serious effort to stop that.

Grandma thinks we need to drop spanish altogether for now, I disagree. I see my son as intelligent, but cautious. What advice could you give us?

thanks so much for the help,

jason & mayra

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Luisa Ramos, CT  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 00:56
Member (2004)
English to Spanish
Been there, done that (twice). Oct 7, 2005

Do not drop the Spanish at home. Where else is he going to get it? On the contrary, speak only Spanish at home and do not give up to the temptation of using both languages at the same time either. He will get the English at school. Do not fret, it may seem incomprehensible to you right now but he will get both languages and will be perfectly able to separate them and, someday, you will be so proud when people comment about your son as they had about my children: He has no accent! (Whether he speaks in English or in Spanish.)

I remember when my son started Prek and just a few days later, when I went to pick him up, I found his teacher very happy because my son had spoken his first word in English. I asked, "What did he say?" And the teacher's face lighted up with joy and pride as she said: "He said piano." I pretended to be as happy as her. Of course, this was many, many years ago; Spanish did not have the presence it has today in the USA so she did not know any better... and I did not have the courage to tell her.

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United States
Local time: 22:56
French to English
+ ...
native language of mother and father Oct 7, 2005

The standard advice is for the American parent to speak to the child in English while the Mexican parent speaks to the child in Spanish. It is not always easy to do that.

My two sons speak both French and English but favor English because they spent the majority of their school years in the U.S. My husband is a native French speaker and I am a native English speaker. The boys (now 20 and 22) also had 1-2 trips/year to see their French-speaking family. Communication would have been practically impossible if they had not been able to speak French.

I think it is important to acquire one language completely because the brain is compiling a data base, which will be used later for each language to follow. Even though syntax varies, all languages have nouns and verbs, adjectives, possessive forms. Otherwise, he may be very confused.

Your son's brain is being developed now. I am not suggesting that you stop Spanish altogether but set up some predictable time that the child will speak it with you (mealtime or special family time).

Once he starts to speak in English he can watch TV in Spanish and read books in Spanish (even picture books). He may be "kept back" if his language skills are considered "slow".

I realize this is a personal preference; just offering you my experience and a certain amount of success. Good luck!

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Larissa Dinsley  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 05:56
Member (2003)
English to Russian
+ ...
the key is the time you can afford to spend with your son Oct 7, 2005

It is very important that you actually spend ***a lot of time*** with your son: talking to him, reading outloud, asking questions, giving answers, role playing, pretend games. It looks like he needs intercation. Have some quality time with him and do plenty of talking even if you think he is not understanding you.

Recently, a little Norwegian boy joined the pre-school my daughter is in. He did not speak a word of English a month ago, now he is doing very well and makes himself understood when he plays with English-speaking kids.

Give your son an advantage of being a bilingual, he will do it, he may just need some time and attention. Give your son a lot of encouragement, praise him a lot, pretend that you understand his babbles and you will succeede.

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Local time: 21:56
English to French
+ ...
Every child is different Oct 7, 2005

I wouldn't worry too much. Some kids speak later than others, some ride a bike earlier, so forth. Some people say boys speak later than girls.

My own son started to really speak when he started preschool at age 3. The reason was not the 3 languages he had been exposed to, it was really my fault, we understood each other so well he didn't need to actually build sentences or be specific. I guess in a way being close to your child is not good for him.

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Agua  Identity Verified
English to Spanish
+ ...
One in one language, the other in the other, both in their native. Oct 7, 2005


I think you should not worry, except that you would need to, as far as I know:

1. talk a lot to him, read stories, etc. etc.

2. each of you should do it in your language, consistently, each your native, at least at first. We did that with our daughter, and I have found out that she distinguishes between the two languages clearly, so she can ask the same questions in any of the two, depending whether they are addressed to me or to her father. Later, once your son has that distinction very clear in his mind, you can allow the occasional mix, or, if you move countries, start talking to him in the language he is not getting in the rest of the place.

3. remember every child develops differently, and some of them take a lot of the language in, until they suddenly decide to express it out in words everybody else can understand or feel the need to do so. Check out the children around, anyway, and, when worried, you can ask for expert advise, even if just to ease your mind.

4. I forgot: try to talk to him in complete sentences and adult talk, in both languages, and try to talk a lot. If there are some words that you consider important he knows and says correctly, you could try "not understanding" them until he tries telling them better and better each time.

Happy reading and talking!



[Edited at 2005-10-07 07:00]

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Elvira Schmid  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:56
English to German
+ ...
One parent - one language Oct 7, 2005

In my opinion it is not only very important, but imperative, that one parent speeks only one language.
We have two children, age 4 and 5, and they both speak German and English. From the very beginning (they both started talking very early at 1 year of age and were comprehensible in both languages at the age of 2) they distinguished the two languages very well and did not try to mix, as I always speek German to my kids and my boyfriend always speaks English to them.

Now, if they can't think of a word in English or do not know the word, and if they are talking to their father, they do not mix the German word into the sentence, but instead come to me and ask me "How do you say this word in English" and then go back to their father and say it in English. If I am not there they simply say: "Mummy sais XXX to this" and then he would tell them the English word for it.

For them it is natural to talk in English to their father and in German to their mother. Me and my boyfriend speak English together. So at dinner table for example I would speak English to my boyfriend, but when I want to say something to my kids (for example ask them if they agree to what I said) I would ask them in German without repeating the whole story I said in English again in German. They understood what I said in English to my boyfriend so there is no need to repeat, but if I ask them something, I ask them in German and they do the same.

I think it is very confusing for your son if you are not consistent in the language you speak. It is very easy for their brain to separate the language, if they can combine the language with a person. The child is still to young to understand when you mix and that a certain word belongs to one language or the other, if you separate it is easier for him to distinguish. And when he is able to distinguish it is also easier for him to speak, as he does not have that immense choice of words all in one "pot", but instead he can choose from the words of one language only depending on who he speaks to.

Now, this was my suggestion. There are also many books on the market about bilingual education. I really hope you got an inside of our "way of doing it" and that you do understand the importance of "one parent - one language".

Good luck!

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Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:56
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
Check his hearing, then carry on as above Oct 7, 2005

Our health visitor was most upset when our son did not respond to a hearing test as a baby - at six months, before he was talking at all. We had a nervous week before she repeated the test! Luckily he was just occupied with the toy she had just given him - he has never had hearing problems (except when other people's music was too loud )

We spoke only Danish when he was small, but we read a lot of English books with him. Now he is 26, works in the UK, is bilingual and can if required interpret from German to English in his professional field - which is biophysics.

But as some children miraculously learn to read when given glasses, there just may be a hearing difficulty, so eliminate that possibility. When he needs to communicate with other children, my bet is that your son's babble and passive vocabulary will rapidly become comprehensible.

Enjoy those years - they pass so quickly!

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Elvira Schmid  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:56
English to German
+ ...
"try not understanding" - really a solution? Oct 7, 2005

[quote]Mar Rodríguez wrote:

4. I forgot: try to talk to him in complete sentences and adult talk, in both languages, and try to talk a lot. If there are some words that you consider important he knows and says correctly, you could try "not understanding" them until he tries telling them better and better each time.

I agree in that it is important to talk in complete sentences and not in baby talk. However, I think it could be dangerous to pretend to "not understand" as this might be very frustrating for the child at some stage and since he does not have the confidence to talk yet, this could decrease his confidence even more.

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Garaemma  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 05:56
Italian to English
+ ...
Bi-lingual Children Oct 7, 2005

I would say to keep up with the Spanish and the English and not to drop the English as the grandmother said as I can speak of experience with my children. I am English and my husband is an Italian and we have always spoken the two languages in the house, I have found that they have started to speak later than the other children but now they are more or less bi-lingual. When my son was little I had problems also with the local health visitor saying about his hearing and language but we realized later on that my son was just not interested in the so called tests that these people were doing with him. Anyway now as I have said it is good for them as they are bi-lingual and already speak two languages and now in school they are learning other ones so I would say not to give up with the languages as I think from personal experience the more languages you know the better it is, and children they say under twelve can learn a new language in half the time of us adults.

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Nizamettin Yigit  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:56
Dutch to Turkish
+ ...
Bilinguality Oct 7, 2005


There are simply a few rules that you want to apply.

1- Speak both languages if you want him to learn / speak them.
2- it is better for each of parents speak one language.
3- Do not mix-up your expression into two languages; like "uno appel" it is "one apple" or otherwise..
4- Both you and his mother try your best to spend time with him.
5- Do not panic if he speaks slower later than his age group(same age) who are speaking only one language.
6- Have earning tools available in your house for either of the languages (like coloring books, stroy books, audio bookjs and videos etc.)
7- After school years plan weekend schools and activities in the second language.
8- When you choose a neighborhood to live, do not oversight/underestimate his needs of friends in both languages.

These are a few of tips that I can say as father of a tri-lingual.

I hope it helps.


N. Yigit

[Edited at 2005-10-07 09:41]

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United Kingdom
Local time: 05:56
English to Italian
+ ...
Relax Oct 7, 2005

First have his hearing tested, like Christine suggested, and if it goes well, relax. Your little boy is taking his time. If your instinct tells you that there is nothing wrong in his behavior, he will get there eventually.

My daughter is just getting there now at 4 and a half.
Some of my husband's colleagues specialize in language acquisition and they thought that she certainly didn't 'comply' with their data. The tempation may often be there to 'medicalize' these cases and thinking there's something wrong with the child.

Unfortunately, in such a competitive world, children have to start to learn and be proficient earlier and earlier in life. That's why we worry. When I grew up in the sixties, one of five, my mum hardly took notice of when we started to talk. At some point it happened and then we went to school. And we were bilingual with our local dialect.

As for dropping bilingualism, just think that monolingual people are a minority in the world (in some regions children learn 3 or 4 languages) and they think it must be such a mysterious process, a cruelty to impose on children. My lovely Parmesan dialect was always part of my everyday life and I certainly cannot think of it in these terms.

Best wishes,


[Edited at 2005-10-07 21:24]

[Edited at 2005-10-07 21:25]

[Edited at 2005-10-07 21:29]

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Dr Sue Levy
Local time: 06:56
French to English
+ ...
Both languages and consistency and lots of books! Oct 7, 2005

I think it's very important to be consistent. Ideally, you should each speak your native language (English for Dad and Spanish for Mum) and stick to it. Certainly don't drop the Spanish. There is no reason to do that and it could be traumatic for your son.

My daughter is perfectly bilingual French-English. (Potential interpreter maybe?) I have always used English with her and her father French. She ignores us if we switch! She started school in the English section of the European School so learnt to read in English. We first realised she could read French as well when she started reading out loud the car owner's manual - while holding it upside down no less! We thought for a moment we had a genius on our hands

I can't emphasise too strongly how important reading is. Read to your child in English. Mum should read to him in Spanish. And lots! TV is no substitute because there is no link with the written word nor can it replace the child-parent rapport which is so important for learning.

Most of all, don't panic. He's only three after all

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Dina Abdo  Identity Verified
Local time: 07:56
Member (2005)
+ ...
No need to worry, unless ... Oct 7, 2005

Unless your child is having hearing problems. But I wouldn't expect that as you're saying that he can speak some words even if not understanding neither languages perfectly.

I had a psycho-socio linguistics course, some part was discussing children ability to learn language in a bilingual house. It turned out that each of parents talking to their child using his/ her native language each makes much better result than both of them speaking both languages when dealing with their child.

You speak English, so you talk to your child in English. She speaks Spanish, so she talks to her child in Spanish. The result would be that your child will be learning both languages perfectly.

In cases were parents mixed languages when talking to their children, not only the child ended up with imperfect results in both languages, but some children even ended up with their own combined languages (a mix they manage using both languages).

My son couldn't talk till his 18 month ... and I'm saying NOT EVEN A SINGLE WORD before that age. When took him to a doctor, he checked his hearing, and when all was found OK, he told us not to worry. Well, I cry (not shouting, but crying with tears actually) sometimes asking my son to stop talking (he's 3 years old now)

There are no exact rules when it comes to children, so try what I suggested above, and see what happens. Just make sure to get your child a hearing test first

Good Luck

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Clarisa Moraña  Identity Verified
Local time: 01:56
Member (2002)
English to Spanish
+ ...
Monolingual kids do not always speak fluently Oct 7, 2005

Having read all those wise points of view and pieces of advice, there is nothing else to add. But remember that while bilingual babies take longer to speak, monolingual babies are not always fluent in theier own language at 3 years old. If after checking his hearing all the reports are good, just give him time. Every baby has its own pace.



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3 yr old boy spanish/english, no real proficiency in either, help

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