As the parent who speaks the minority language to my children at home, it’s occasionally tempting to dwell on the fact that it can be hard. After all, the task of keeping the Spanish going at home falls squarely on my shoulders, right? I’m the one who has to be so disciplined and intentional (my new favorite buzzword) when doing something as simple as speaking with my children, all the time. The pressure, I realize, is self imposed, but it is intense.
And after having children, I’ve gained a better understanding of the kind of determination my parents must have had in order to raise my brother and me to be bilingual. In fact, my mother is visiting and one morning over coffee I asked her what it was like for her and my father when we were children, back when we lived in United States.
“Oh, your father was the strict one,” she told me. “He was the one who made me keep speaking to you in Spanish, even when you answered in English.” He set and enforced several language-related rules in our household, such as the Spanish-only rule at dinnertime. Without him, she added, she’s not sure how long she would have lasted.
Her answer surprised me—I had always assumed she was “in charge” of Spanish. Which she was, in a way, but it really drove home the point that having that kind of support is essential. I remember just how strict my father was—though he was fluent in Spanish, he never spoke it with us, except during our Spanish-only meals. And he constantly, constantly told my brother and me how lucky we were to be both bilingual and bicultural. I joke about that now and tell people that I was subjected to some pretty serious brainwashing, but it worked.
So this post goes out to all of the spouses, partners and other relatives who may not speak the minority language but who support those of us who do. People who I don’t think get nearly enough credit for what they’re doing. People like my father. People like my own husband, who pretends not to notice when I spend a small fortune on books, CDs and DVDs in Spanish. He explains to his parents (who after some initial skepticism are also very supportive) that we make month-long trips to Costa Rica every year so that they will be more familiar with the language and the culture. He has learned quite a bit of Spanish himself, all on his own time. People like my mother, who provided that support role when we moved to Costa Rica, and who cheerfully put off sorely-needed home improvement projects because she and my father agreed that their money would be better spent on sending us to the U.S. every so often to see relatives and keep up our English.
To all of you, your support is probably more important than you realize. Not everyone is lucky enough to have it. And without it, some of us—including my own mother—might have given up long ago.