One of the challenges of being a not-so-perfect Spanish speaker teaching my toddler Spanish is that I am self-conscious of how I sound in public. I really liked Susan’s blogpost last week about being complimented on her accent and her point that accents are nothing be ashamed of. However, I was born in El Salvador, and as a Latina, people often expect me to speak Spanish well. The fact that we immigrated here before my first birthday is really not something that people can tell just by looking at me, nor would it matter, since many Latinas/os encounter the expectation to speak en español because of their ethnic and cultural backgrounds regardless of where they were born.
Unlike some friends and family I know who have no interest in Spanish, because they are “American” (their words), I have a huge interest, despite my small actual talent. I know the English language intimately as a writer and English professor, and wish I was half as comfortable in Spanish. I believe it was Isabel Allende who said that although she writes in English as well as Spanish that she cooks, dreams, and makes love in Spanish. I only wish that I was so deeply bilcutural as she. I call my daughter “Mi Vida,” “Mi Cielo,” Mi Reina,” in attempts to help her feel love in Spanish, so that one day she might “love in Spanish.”
The knowledge that my Spanish should be better than it is makes me very self-aware in public. When we encounter Spanish-speakers in public, whether at the farmer’s market, baby boutique, or check-out line, I actually have to decide whether or not to speak to them in Spanish. Generally, if I respond in English, that’s how the conversation proceeds, but if I respond in Spanish then Marisol and I both get to practice our Spanish. It might seem like a no-brainer, but the hesitation comes from the fear that I might stumble and say the wrong thing or not fully understand the other person. Largely, it is shame that I am so clearly a gringa when it comes to language. It’s the double-edge of being “in between” cultures–I want to be accepted as Latina y Americana, but really, don’t quite fit either category. While it may sometimes feels wonderful to be both/and, it stings to feel neither/nor!
In college, I was particularly chagrined to meet classmates who were Anglos, born and raised in Northern California, who spoke beautiful Spanish and traveled to Central America regularly out of a love for the culture and people. I am embarrassed (albeit grateful to him) to admit that I was taught by a tall, lanky, blond boy how to make pupusas! Here, my family always bought our pupusas, and when we visited El Salvador, las muchachas made them for us! For non-Latinos, even broken Spanish is viewed as admirable, but for Latinos broken Spanish or American-accented Spanish is often viewed as a desgracia.
But all this cultural angst really means nothing to my two-year old. In her eyes, I am the model of language, and everything else! So I try to remind myself to see myself through her eyes and not let my baggage get in the way of relishing Espanol. She will not judge me or correct me. All I have to do is be brave and do my best. What better lesson can there to be to teach her? Isn’t that what I expect of her?
It’s funny… I find myself feeling the same way about my language skills. I have less than a month before we start our 1 parent / 1 language routine here at the house, but I worry that I won’t be up to the challenge – that I’ll fail miserably since I have my own reservations and hang ups when it comes to speaking Spanish. It’s somewhat comforting to know I’m not alone in my daily battle to force myself to speak Spanish and better what I know.
Gracias/Thank you Elsie for sharing such a personal and emotionally-connecting account of where you stand with your languages, your cultures and the struggles between the fine lines of both.
Let me say that I totally admire your candor and willingness to share with others who undoubtedly are struggling with similar challenges. How blessed is your daughter to have a mom so very aware of the need to embrace both the English and the Spanish languages, and how full her life will be that you keep her connected with various cultures.
Do you hear the applause Elsie?!?!? I know there a hundreds and hundreds of women applauding you as I write so celebrate your victories and focus less on your shortcomings. With determination like yours, you will succeed!!!
Bravo! Beautifully written and expressed. You being so open your fears and doubts is even a bigger lesson for your daughter to admire. She will one day know what an effort it was to give her the gift of the language she will associate only with pure AMOR.
Beautiful post! I loved reading it and learned a lot.
Great post! We’re monolinguals raising a very fluent trilingual, so really understand this. It actually gets harder the older they get, I think.
My husband’s parents are truly bilingual because they only spoke Spanish until they went to school ( & then continued Spanish only at home with parents who never learned English despite living in the US). Nobody in his family considers him a Spanish speaker, although he picked up a tiny bit from his Grandmother.
It was really hard for him to only talk to her in Spanish and as she became more & more verbal, it was very limiting on their relationship, so he eventually switched back to English.
Wintering in Spain for the last 4 years, helped all of our Spanish immensely.
Our daughter is now 9 and the most fluent Spanish speaker in our family, so it was all worth it, although we continue working on it daily. Hang in there, it is worth the effort!
What a beautiful post! I find I do the same thing. You are not alone. But I love your viewpoint on how your daughter sees it, so I will try to be brave and do my best too!
I wish my mother had take the measures you are taking to be conscious of instilling your culture onto your daughter. My mother’s tongue was Italian and she was so afraid of being an immigrant that she chose to omit this part of herself to us. I think it’s made huge gaps in both my sister’s and my understanding of our ethnicity because it’s not just that we don’t really speak Italian but that our mother completely became American- she thinks. dreams and loves in English. Sure she made us food, and has an accent and speaks lovingly of la dolce vita- but to her its part of her past not our history. It’s like a dream she and my father share that merely paved the road to us but is not our journey to go on. Today there are whole parts of my family with whom I can not speak to- and the onus is on me I suppose to learn the language and seize my heritage for myself but how much more enriched might my life have been and how much better might my English have been had I been raised bilingual? In short- you are giving Mari all of yourself as opposed to half. Good job! PS- I absolutely adore getting to know all these parts of you I never knew through your writing- thanks for sharing. PPS my mom is a huge fan too.
Thank you for your honesty and courage in this article. I feel the same and agree with you.