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Supporting the English Learner

Dear Elizabeth,
My 4-year-old son speaks Spanish at home and English at school. We’re afraid that if we speak English at home he might forget his Spanish. Should we keep the two languages separate?
Alex Lopez
Elizabeth's Tips
Elizabeth Sanchez
Elizabeth Sanchez
  • Encourage the use of each language
  • Read in each language
  • Provide opportunities to hear & use English
Expert Advice
Magaly Lavadenz, Ph.D.
Magaly Lavadenz, Ph.D.
Language & literacy specialist
Raising bilingual children is the best gift a family can give their child. Bilingual children have more cognitive flexibility, and better cross-cultural understanding. The United States is behind the rest of the world when it comes to learning languages.

Learning Multiple Languages
It’s not confusing for young children to learn two or more languages simultaneously. People have the capacity to learn many languages and we are born being able to utter all of the sounds of languages spoken on the planet.

As children begin to interact with others (adults, other children) in their environment, they receive and respond to cues when they begin to make the sounds of the languages spoken by their caregivers. Early childhood is the best time to develop this. They can learn to speak multiple languages at the same time, and later learn to read them. If this happens they will sound like native speakers in more than just English. Books are a great way to develop language and help children make connections between the spoken word and written words.

To encourage children to learn English without losing their native language, you can consider having one parent speaking only the native language and one parent speaking only English in the home. Ensure that you give equal importance to both, or all, languages.

Learning to speak in a second language happens very quickly. Research says in as little as a few months to 2 years, and this is just through social conversation. We want children to be ready to read in their strongest language, and this means developing vocabulary required to do this. There are so many words in Spanish that are cognates (they mean the same thing and have the same structure) – these will all transfer. Teachers can help point these out for bilingual children.

For parents who may not speak English fluently and don’t know how they can help their kids learn English, they should communicate often with the child’s teacher. Good early childhood programs include bilingual early childhood education that develops children’s languages in meaningful and constructive ways. For parents who are not fluent in English, they can be the best models of the other language and support their child’s English development by exposing them to people and situations where he has an opportunity to hear English being used.
Child Care Provider Comments
Jay Hom
Jay Hom
Father of one son
I am Chinese, my wife is Mexican and we have a 2 ˝ year old son and one on the way. We speak to our son in our native languages, which are Cantonese and Spanish, and he’s learning English from his school and friends. Our son loves reading books. We have more books in English because they are easier to get, but both my wife and I translate the books and stories into our native languages. It also helps both of us improve our own use of the languages.
Azatouhie Varvarian
Azatouhie Varvarian
Cares for her nephew
My nephew is learning English from watching educational TV and from listening to his sister. When we watch TV together, he asks a lot of questions in English that I answer in English. It becomes an interactive experience. We also watch Armenia TV channels together. We apply the same concept of asking and responding to his questions in Armenian. He knows all of the Armenian songs and he knows that he has to recognize his Armenian friends and family by greeting them in Armenian.
Marielena Rivas
Marielena Rivas
Child care provider for seven years
The majority of our kids are Spanish speakers so we use both English and Spanish at our center. We will sing songs about the days of the week and the weather in both English and Spanish. After we sing we sit down and read stories. Our books are in English and Spanish. We often send activities home encouraging the parents to extend the learning at home. The kids do these activities with their parents and it even helps the parents to improve their English skills.

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Matching Game
Supporting the English Learner Featured Video:
Supporting the English Learner
Topic: Social & Emotional Development
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