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My wife and I are raising our two boys here in the US. One is 22 months and the other is 44 months. My wife is a native Spanish speaker and I am a native English speaker, and I am fluent in Spanish and Italian. The method we have been using is that she speaks in Spanish to the boys and I speak both Spanish and English to them. I have not even tried to introduce Italian yet, which may be the topic for another post. We have many friends who speak only Spanish, and we have a baby sitter who is a Spanish speaker with very limited English, so they are both exposed to Spanish a very large percentage of the time. Our older boy understands everything in Spanish, but will only use a Spanish word if he doesn’t know the English word. When he goes to our Spanish speaking friend’s house, he needs her 4 year old to translate our son’s responses to her Spanish questions-which he understands. We are looking for a way to get him to speak this language that he clearly understands. Any ideas?

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This topic comes up a lot (on other forums I’ve been on). He doesn’t speak Spanish because he doesn’t have to. There are people that understand him and allow him to speak English when he wants. I taught my daughter at a young age to respond in the language spoken to. It’s just polite. If someone is speaking in English, she needs to respond in English; if in Spanish, then Spanish.

No one should be translating for him. It’s possible he is a type of perfectionist in which if he thinks he can’t say everything in Spanish, he’ll opt for English. (This is often heard about in late-speaking monolingual children as well.) The only way to improve is by practice, and the practice comes by speaking what he knows. Then, you know what he needs help with, and help accordingly. If you speak to him in Spanish, and he answers in English, say, “Que?! Estoy hablando en espanol, tienes que responderme en espanol. Lo siento, no te endiendo.”

When you hear him trying in Spanish, help him out. If he doesn’t try, you can’t understand, or hear him. It may be easier for your wife to do that since she is the native speaker and doing the Spanish, but I’ve done it myself with my daughter (our situations are reversed- my husband is the native speaker and I speak both). Since my husband really didn’t understand English, my daughter really had no choice but to learn to communicate with both of us in both languages (I did all English until she was about 18 months, dh all Spanish). Your 44 month old needs to be in the same (immersion) situation in which he has to communicate in Spanish or not be understood.

It will work out, but you must be diligent.

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We’re in a very similar situation:

– A 3 year old and 22 month old.
– Live-in Au Pair that only speaks Spanish to children.
– Father only speaks Spanish to children, mother speaks English.

Our 3 year old completely understands Spanish, but replies in English 90% of the time.  I have a sister that went through the same issue, she and her husband just continued to speak Spanish/English to their 2 children.  Today their children are almost teenagers and fully bilingual.

We plan to do the same.  I think it’s normal for younger children to choose a main language while they continue to learn/practice a 2nd one.  Living in the U.S., English should be the main language so they can communicate with friends.  I’m confident that they’ll both be bilingual.

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Answering in the language a person speaks to you is common courtesy. If someone walks up to me and speaks to me in either English, Spanish, German, or Japanese, I am not going to start speaking to them in English because it is the majority language in the US. If I don’t understand, I will say I don’t understand and then ask if they speak English. It is important to teach our children common courtesy, even in languages. If spoken to in a particular language, respond in that language. Again, common courtesy. But then again, I’ve lived overseas (as a teen) and realize many Americans are sheltered and believe everyone should speak just English, regardless of the mother tongue.

As English is the majority language in the US, it is even more important that the child be speaking the minority language at least in the home. They will get plenty of English in school, and then the parents will be wondering where the minority language flew off to. It happens all the time.


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Hello! I share your concern.
I am a Spanish native speaker who lives in Brazil. My husband is brazilian, so he speaks portuguese.
We have a 2 and a half years old boy that understands everything that I say to him in Spanish (I always speak Spanish to him and his father speaks Portuguese) but now he only answers in Portuguese.
It took him a while to learn how to talk, so now that he can actually communicate quite well in Portuguese, I don’t want to force him to speak with me in Spanish (though I continue to speak to him in Spanish, but sometimes I have to say some words in Portuguese for him to understand).
My fear is that if this goes on, he might not want to speak Spanish at all later on. But sometimes I also think that perhaps he’s just too young, and I have to be more patient.



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My son is 21 months old, and I speak Russian to him, while my husband speaks English. Problem is, I’m am greatly outnumbered as far as the Russian-to-English language ratio is concerned, since we live in America, and his Russian exposure is only through me. I, too, am worried that my child will want to answer to me in English when I speak Russian to him. I see it happening already.

I am a bit confused when I see people suggesting to tell your kids you don’t understand them, or it’s a polite to reply in the language you’re being talked to. First of all, your kids are no stupid, and they know you do understand them since they hear you speak the other language to other people, be it your spouse or a shop clerk. And being polite, although a perfectly understandable concept for us, adults, is not how kids operate. 


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