I am kindergarten teacher and I have a student who’s parents only speak Spanish, but they believed she shouldn’t learn Spanish, so they just let her older sister speak to her in English. She went to preschool, where she picked up some more English.
The problem is, she is not proficient in either language. Her syntax is incorrect in English and Spanish and her speech is very telegraphic. She is in bilingual services at school, but she is not really bilingual.
I am looking for suggestions on what I can do to help her gain proficiency in either language. The bilingual teacher at our school is equally as concerned and is looking for ideas to help her with Spanish as well. We appreciate any help – ideas, resources, other places we can seek help.
You don’t say how old this child is, so let me start by saying that the issues that you mention (incorrect syntax, telegraphic speech) are quite typical of language development across the board, whether monolingual or multilingual. Some information about this is at The Linguist List. Language development has been shown to extend well beyond the schooling years, among children far older than kindergarteners.
One “problem” with multilingual children is that there is a tendency to attribute any perceived “problems” in their languages to multilingualism itself, not to developmental issues, simply because these children are labelled as “special” children. This article, on what typical multilinguals are, may help shed some light on this issue. Being multilingual is not special, it’s the normal condition of humankind, going by numbers: multilinguals outnumber monolinguals worldwide.
You say that this child “is not really bilingual”, and I wondered what you meant. If you mean that multilinguals should have “perfect”, or equivalent command of all their languages, this, again, does not reflect what multilingualism is: multilinguals use their languages differently, to different people, for different purposes. Multilingual children, in turn, must develop in all their languages in this way, which means that their languages will develop differently.
To help this girl with Spanish, as you ask, making two things clear to her parents might be in order. First, there is no reason why their girl “shouldn’t learn Spanish”. This is the language of her parents, and being able to communicate with one’s parents (and other relatives) in a language that comes naturally to them is a very good reason to learn that language. Her sister may go on using English with her. As said, multilinguals use different languages to different people. Second, speaking more than one language does not affect typical development in any of those languages. Their girl won’t become a better user of English by removing Spanish from her. Her English will develop through her use of the language in the environments where using English is natural.
Perhaps part of the “problem” with this child is that no one has made it clear to her, through actual use of her languages, which language she should use with whom, and why?
Do feel free to contact me privately, if you wish to discuss these matters in greater detail.