Bilingual is Better

Photo by Sawheldon/Andel Wheldon

I’ve been thinking about two things lately: my daughter’s name and her linguistic environment.  When we named her Marisol, we intentionally chose a Spanish name, including that rolled “r.”  We knew it would be butchered often, but loved it anyway and it became her name.  Her middle and last names are also very clearly Latino names as well.  Throughout our days, though, I wonder if her name will make her feel out of place, or self-conscious because it is so Spanish.  Despite my best efforts, the minority of the people she interacts with everyday say her name correctly. Baby-naming is always complicated, I suppose. I hated my own name for much of my childhood, and wished I had a more romantic sounding name.  So I’ve given my daughter what I wanted, but will it be what she wants? Will she always have to tolerate mispronunciation or correct people whenever she meets them?  I want her to feel comfortable not only with her name, but with our lengua in general; it’s just not that easy. Part of the problem is that her environment is largely English-speaking, despite being Latino!

This seems to be a common challenge for us bilingual households, trying to create an environment rich in Spanish.  Admittedly, much of the challenge begins with me: I am predominantly an English speaker. At work, among friends, and with my husband, I speak English. Even though my entire family (at least the adults) speaks Spanish, we don’t usually speak it with each other. ¡¿Qué pasa?!

I speak Spanish with my daughter everyday, but I am really the only Spanish speaker she interacts with, unfortunately.  I had thought that my family would jump at the chance to speak Spanish to her, and expected some teasing that I–La Gringa–want my daughter to speak Español.  But something interesting has taken place: they don’t speak Spanish to her!

Sometimes my mom, or another relative, will speak a little Spanish around Marisol, but it’s very rare. I don’t push it, because I don’t want to nag, but I have tried to understand this phenomenon.  Because I spent most of my life speaking English to my family members, that’s how they know to speak to me.  I think it would take a huge effort to override those habits for them and for me.

Another part of the problem may be a cultural one, and more specifically, an immigrant cultural issue.  Many Spanish speakers who immigrated as adults, or even as children, have encountered a lot of resistance to their Spanish, often in the form of teasing or discrimination. There is a pervasive idea that our children need to learn English to succeed and that Spanish may even hold them back. So there are many many families in which the parents speak perfect Spanish, but they do not speak it with the children, and the children never learn Spanish. This is done out of love and a desire to help the kids excel in American society.

I know from my academic work that sometimes parents are asked by well-meaning school employees to speak exclusively in English with their children, and this mentality that Spanish is harmful is hard to change from one generation to the next.  Much of our linguistic heritage has been lost by such well-meaning efforts to assimilate into American culture and turning the tide is no small feat.

So it seems crazy for me (an English teacher!) to ask for the opposite–Hablen En Español! But, especially as “la Gringa,” I NEED for the Spanish speakers around me to help, particularly because the Spanish of the older generation is often far more fluent than mine.

My vision of Marisol being surrounded by Spanish, and even having her name pronounced correctly, has turned out to be harder to realize than I anticipated, but I am willing to keep trying.

SpanglishBaby familia–do you have any bright ideas for inspiring more Spanish among family or how to ensure that my daughter feels good about her unique name?

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