Our Story: How We Grew Up Bilingual

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Photo by Julia Manzerova

In the last year, both Ana Lilian and I have shared a lot with you about how we’re raising our children bilingual + bicultural—joys and challenges included. Although we’ve shared some details, one thing we have not really done is tell you the how we grew up bilingual ourselves. In honor of SpanglishBaby’s first anniversary, we figured we’d get a bit more personal and allow you to get to know us a little bit better…

Roxana’s Story: A Multicultural Upbringing

The tale of how I grew up bilingual is totally different from that of my children. I am an immigrant who moved to this country from Perú as a teenager. Luckily, I already spoke English when I got here which made the transition a bit smoother.

Before I turned 15, I had already lived in three different continents (South America, Africa and North America) and had been exposed to at least four languages: Spanish, English, French and Afrikaans. I can’t deny it was a bit rough moving every couple of years growing up, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. It was rough because of the friendships we had to leave behind, but this also meant we got to meet people from all kinds of backgrounds.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, both my parents are bilingual (Spanish/English). My father taught himself English as an adult and my mother went to a bilingual British school in Lima, Peru. My sister and I attended the same school while we lived in Peru both before our travels started and when we returned several years later after a stint in Johannesburg, South Africa. Without the education and training I received there, I don’t think I’d be sitting here comfortably writing this in English, my second tongue.

Looking back, I think one of the most difficult moves was from Argentina to South Africa when I was nine years old. At this point in my life, I hadn’t really done much of the bilingual education thing and although I understood some basic English vocabulary, my parents realized it wouldn’t be enough and as soon as the move to Johannesburg was confirmed, they enrolled me in English classes while we waited for everything to be ready for the transfer. I remember nothing of them, but they must have helped because when we finally did move, I was able to survive in school—except for when we had Afrikaans lessons and I was utterly and helplessly lost!

By the time my father was transferred to Florida, I had several years of solid dual language instruction in English and Spanish. Although I can’t say moving to the U.S. as a teenager was not a shock, the fact that I at least was fairly proficient in the majority language made a huge difference. In school, I did not have to attend any ESL classes and in fact, I was placed in advanced English since my written skills tended to surpass those of my peers who were born and raised in the U.S. I must confess, though, that at first I really did not feel comfortable speaking English and I made every attempt to befriend those who spoke Spanish. Luckily we were in Miami.

Most of my family, on my mom’s side at least, is at the very minimum bilingual. Both my aunts, in fact, are English educators in Latin America. All my cousins speak English and some, additional languages. When SpanglishBaby was just an idea, I remember telling one of my aunts about it. She was kind of surprised that there would actually be a need for a blog like this. I guess maybe because they—my mom and her sisters—didn’t really think too much about the idea of their children growing up bilingual the way they had. In other words, they’re all bilingual because their father, my grandfather, was ahead of his time and sacrificed everything so they could attend one of the most prestigious bilingual schools in Peru.

I had to explain to my aunt that things are totally different for those of us who live in the U.S. but are Latino. For us, raising bilingual children is more than just speaking two languages. As I’ve said in the past, it has to do with heritage, culture, identity and familia.

I wonder if my children will feel so passionate about raising their own kids bilingual?

Ana Lilian’s Story: A Child of Both Worlds

I’m truly a child of both worlds. You can almost say I had it easy in the language acquisition sense. It’s not like I tried hard to learn Spanish and English. I just did.

My mother, my sister and I moved to El Salvador from Houston when I was six years old. My mom says that by the time we moved I was already perfectly bilingual. I don’t think she really gave it much thought at that time. I was getting plenty of English at kindergarten in Houston and playing with my English-speaking neighbors. The Spanish I got from both parents, my aunt who lived with us and the large group of party-loving Latinos my parents hung out with.

The one thing my mom had very clear was that she wanted us to attend an American school in El Salvador. The Escuela Americana follows a North American curriculum from kindergarten through high school, which meant I only had one class in Spanish every day. Not much, right? Well, I still learned to read and write it no problem. How? Because I was immersed in Spanish as it was the majority language. English, being the minority, had to be more strongly reinforced through school and activities.

Summers and some holidays were spent in Houston with my dad and his new family. This meant we were practically immersed in English, and bullied into speaking it well by our step-brothers or face the wrath of teases.

The fact that it was an organic and almost unplanned process for me to become bilingual, bi-literate and bicultural also made me naive as to the idea of having to actually have a plan with my daughter. The  thought had never crossed my mind before having her. Now I know how truly lucky I was to be given the gift of two languages—my mother did try for the third one, but I was way too necia!

Growing up with one foot on this side of the border and another on that side instilled in me a confidence that allows me to feel at ease in either culture with their many traditions. A confidence built around knowing the kinks of each culture and being able to automatically navigate between one and the other with out a thought.

Will  me daughter have that same confidence? I don’t have the answer yet, but at least it gives me a marker towards which to navigate to.

We invite you to share your story: how did you grow up bilingual?

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