When I was a second-grade teacher, around half of my students spoke Spanish at home. While nearly all of them were born in the United States, many of their parents and family members had immigrated from Central American countries. These parents often asked how they could help their children and because of their limited English, some felt they had no way to do so. This was not true. I told them they could speak, read stories and solve math problems with their children in Spanish—and that all this would support their children’s education in English. At this point, I received some skeptical looks. Such a suggestion strikes many Spanish-speaking parents as odd since English proficiency remains the ticket to increased
economic opportunity and social integration. Many Latino immigrants view their young children’s use of Spanish
cautiously, almost suspiciously, nervous that it will hinder their potential. And this belief is only reinforced when policymakers
formally codify English-only mandates into state education laws. I remember getting a peek into this mindset in one discussion with a student’s mother. She was afraid that speaking Spanish with her children would disrupt their English development, so she spoke only English at home with them. My heart sank a little, because there’s a large research base that shows parents should feel empowered to use their native language with their children. In fact,
some studies have found that non-native language use by a parent can even
negatively impact cognitive development and language learning for children as young as 2 years old. As neuroscience expert Dana Suskind concludes in her book,
“Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain,” research suggests that it is “always better” for parents to speak to children in their native language. This holds true no matter the parents’ educational level or their English proficiency:
Since the new language, in this case English, was learned by parents as adults, their proficiency will never match that of their native tongue in vocabulary, syntax, nuance, or overall quality. This is because when people express themselves in the language that’s been part of their entire lives, they express more than just the concrete meanings of words; they express the more profound meanings, both emotional and, to the non-native speaker, somewhat veiled...The best scenario is that children of non-English-speaking parents learn the language of their parents from their parents.
A recent study on Spanish-speaking preschoolers adds to this body of research on academic development in two languages. Researchers studied 125 Spanish-speaking Head Start students in an English-dominant classroom in the Southwest. Most of the children were Mexican Americans born in the United States whose families made less than $30,000 a year. They were tested in the fall and spring to see how recognizing letters and decoding words in Spanish affected the learning of similar skills in English; they did the same for basic math skills in Spanish,
like counting and basic arithmetic. The study found that children entering pre-K with high levels of Spanish reading and math skills appeared to enhance their learning of those skills in English. These findings build the field’s research base in two key ways.
While findings are consistent with earlier research on elementary school children, researchers note the new study establishes the generalizability of those findings to children ages 3 to 5 in a way that was previously unclear.
Less research exists on cross-language associations between Spanish and English math skills. The recent study offers new evidence that math skills are not language specific, but rather can transfer from Spanish to English.
Taken together, the findings have useful implications for prodding Spanish-speaking families to help their youngest learners. Educators should instill parents with the confidence that their native language can promote academic readiness in English. For example, teachers can encourage parents to include math-related speech in their Spanish conversations, such as counting and ordering objects, and to use Spanish literacy materials at home. But the study focused only on Spanish and English dual language-learners, so findings may not be applicable to students whose families speak other languages. It’s a slightly counterintuitive idea, but the research continues to show that more native language at home supports English education at school. Educators must continue to reassure families that their native language, far from being a liability, is a valuable resource to nurture.
Janie Tankard Carnock was most recently a policy analyst in the education policy program at the New America Foundation where she provided research and analysis on policies related to dual-language learners. Previously, Carnock taught second grade in Baltimore City. She holds an M.S. in education from Johns Hopkins University and a B.A. from Harvard University.