Sometimes it sounds like the ideal way to make absolutely sure that your children will grow up speaking Spanish: Hey, let’s move to Latin America. Spanish immersion! Problem solved. Except, of course, it’s not a simple thing to do. There are jobs, families, schooling to consider. Not to mention the fact that if it’s a long-term move, then you shift to worrying about your children keeping up with their English. I can honestly say that it’s not an option for my family, period, for a long list of reasons.
My parents, however, made that move when I was eight. And at first, it was brutal. They started a small business, which took a while to get off the ground. My father took another job. My mother confessed to me years later that she would gaze at airplanes flying overhead and cry. Mostly, I thought it was a big adventure, but there was definitely some major culture shock.
My brother and I went to three different schools in the first three years. And kids proceeded to tease me mercilessly—often about my accent. Though I spoke Spanish when we arrived, it was definitely not my dominant language, and my nickname was Gringa. I particularly remember a time when the girls in my class would come up to me repeatedly and ask me to say borrador, because I couldn’t roll my r’s worth a darn.
I still occasionally get a good-natured ribbing from my Latin American colleagues about my inability to roll my r’s, and since I’m older, wiser and no longer in high school, I can laugh about it and it’s all in good fun. But when it comes to real teasing, or mean comments about someone’s accent, I have no patience for that. Neither did my father. He had a very thick American accent, but his Spanish was excellent. He regularly read El Código del Trabajo in his office, he read two major Costa Rican papers every day and was my go-to guy when I wanted in-depth information on current events. Whenever someone made a snarky comment about his accent, he would flat-out tell them they were being rude.
I hadn’t thought much about my children’s accents until our last trip to Costa Rica. I had never, ever noticed that when Primo says sí, he pronounces it “sí-a.” The (older) children of a family friend picked up on it immediately and couldn’t let it go. Why does he say it that way? Has he always said it that way? Listen, he said it again. I tried to provide gentle explanations. That’s just how he says it. His teachers and friends at school speak English.
I guess it’s never been an issue here. The way I see it, if my boys grow up speaking Spanish fluently, I’ll be thrilled—who cares about their accent? Since Spanish is the minority language here, most people find the fact that my boys can speak it kind of charming. Their accent will be a part of who they are, just as my accent is a part of who I am, of my upbringing, my circumstances, my life experience.
If they’re teased about it, I suppose I’ll deal with it the way I did with my friend’s kids, by taking the chance to explain and educate. Or I could follow the example of my master teacher when I was a student teacher in her sixth-grade class. One of the English speakers in the class made a comment about one of the Spanish speakers, who hadn’t learned too much English yet. The teacher took him to task, and concluded by saying, “When YOU learn to speak two languages, THEN you can tease him about his accent. How’s that?”