When I first started writing for SpanglishBaby, my son and I were going it alone. I was a single parent trying to keep up with speaking my non-native language to him full-time. It was challenging, but relatively predictable.
Now, I have taken on a whole new set of challenges regarding parenting and bilingualism. I am in a relationship with a wonderful man who has two daughters, ages 9 and 11. The girls both know Spanish, but have quite different views on speaking it. While the older sister comes out with Spanish voluntarily and gets excited about learning new phrases, the younger is resistant to the brink of tears. Although she attends a foreign language academy, she is afraid to make a mistake, and doesn’t even want to speak to her abuelos in Spanish.
With all three kids, we have attempted heart-to-heart talks about their Latino identity and incentives for speaking their heritage language. We’ve even played “the Spanish game,” where the first one to slip up and use English is the proverbial rotten egg.
Still, despite her perfect accent and comprehension, the 9-year-old wants a translator and asks for English TV shows when she visits her relatives in Puerto Rico. Even more worrisome, my son has picked up on his stepsister’s opposition and claims he doesn’t want to speak Spanish at our home because she won’t understand him.
All these intricate relationships with the Spanish language and blended cultures in one family have expanded my understanding of what we all mean when we say we are raising bilingual children. No matter the availability of books, movies, Spanish-speaking relatives, and immersion opportunities, things will sometimes go awry. A simple preference for one language or a general dislike for language learning can come about as children grow and develop a sense of individuality.
Even more than learning how to be a mother figure to two preteen girls in addition to raising a stubborn 3-year-old boy, this has taught me – once again – that it is not the result of parenting that matters; it is the chain of events that make up our daily lives. We should not expect that there will be a day when all our efforts come to fruition and our children are as fluent as we tried to make them. Instead, we have to supply them with the tools to arrive at some form of fluency, even if it is not exactly what we would have chosen.
Great post, Chelsea!
…Your younger girl’s and your son’s attitude towards speaking in Spanish reminds me of a self-assessment I give all foreign language tutors in training. It gets at their preferences for accuracy over fluency, two important yet sometimes opposing goals in using any language. Typically, our tutors tend to want to be accurate, which then stifles their willingness to engage in activities to build their fluency (practice, practice, practice!) In my own family, this is also the case. My husband is an inveterate reader, of grammar books and works in his second languages, so that balances his also compulsive interest in talking with people and just trying to convey his ideas and respond to others’ ideas, no matter whether his grammar is correct. He reaches a high level of proficiency b/c in the end, he doesn’t care whether, in the course of a conversation, he’s accurate or not. But those repeated attempts at communication give him the practice to put his book knowledge to use. I, on the other hand, want to get it right, and hesitate to talk. These are some of the affective factors for adults learning a second language
….Your situation is different, as your kids acquire language more naturally, from the rich environment you create for them. And, as you say, from the culture that surrounds them, be it helpful or not to their lg. acquisition. And from their own personalities and proclivities.
I am definitely more like you, too. I think if you know the grammar inside and out, you tend to create your own barriers to fluency. I’ll be interested to see how the kids’ language skills develop differently.
I’ll have to come back to the old digs and see how you’re approaching tutor training now.
Chelsea, I would like to tell you that my husband and I along with out children have been on a blended bilingual adventure for 5 years and I want you to know it DOES get easier.
I won’t sugar coat this. It’s been challenging for us. My (white, monolingual) daughter was 14 and had pretty much decided she didn’t need a dad, when my (Mexican, English-learner) husband arrived in her life. I got lucky that my new stepkids were 2 & 4 years old and very open to me. He had a tougher row to hoe!
Blended-family stuff is just plain hard. And really, a truly bicultural life that fully embraces both sides is not always easy either. In our case it’s not just two countries, but also the difference between a middle-class urban life and a more rural upbringing without plumbing etc.
Turnng our ideals into actually building a strong life together and for our children & families has sometimes felt like surfing the top of a train going 90 miles an hour while people throw things at you.
One thing that surprised me was how stressful it was for me feeling like the point around which everything and everyone else turned (being the only one fluent in both languages).
You know what, five years in, everyone is quite fond of one another, and my daughter is taking Spanish in college…
It may sound overly simplified but I can tell you honestly, what each of us has truly gained in our own happiness is BECAUSE we had to hash out all kinds of stuff that other people never have to talk about!
It sounds like you are the queen of blended families! It is inspiring to know that there are others who haven’t fallen off the train. I will remember what you’ve been through when I’m too exhausted to speak Spanish with the kids, much less do the everyday mom tasks.
First of all, congrats on starting this new adventure in your life with a new partner!
I can relate to your struggles but from the child´s perspective. My dad (Salvadoran) has lived in Houston since his twenties and remarried a Mexican-American woman who was a widow with 4 kids. Their dad was Colombian.
My sister and I had to live with them every summer and it was utter chaos. I always say that I speak perfect English thanks to the hard time my step brothers would give me if I said anything wrong or with an accent.
Not only that, but they would constantly mock my Salvadoran words like cincho, instead of the Mexican “cinto” or “cinturon” and such.
For a tween, this wasn´t easy to take.
But, we turned out fine Many things made me stronger and more independent.
From what you always write, it seems that you totally get that…
You are proof that chaos can (ironically) produce balance and maturity. Having come from a vanilla (translation: boring) American background, I am enjoying the familial and linguistic chaos. Thanks for sharing your story.
I have a question about your previous situation… I am a single mother of a 2-1/2 year old. I speak English, but am also fluent in Spanish, and lived in Mexico for 6-1/2 years. I think I should have started teaching my daughter Spanish from the start, but I didn’t, I wanted her to have a firm grasp on English which she seems to have now. She is now picking up a Spanish word here and there really quickly as I have started to say more to her in Spanish. Do you have any suggestions for me to start trying to help my daughter become bilingual? You should also know that we live in a very small area where there is very little to no Spanish speakers in this area (only at one Mexican restaurant). Any suggestions would be very greatly appreciated. Thank you! P.S. – I wish you the best of luck in your family, your relationship, and your family’s Spanish!
I know from firsthand experience that being a single mom is very difficult, even without the stress of speaking your second language. My first piece of advice is to try not to be too hard on yourself about what you are NOT giving your daughter, and know that she will be grateful for any and all life skills you do provide.
My ex-husband (a native speaker) and I spoke Spanish with our son from birth, so I had a bit of a running start before I became a single mom when he was 18 months old. I continued speaking only Spanish to him, even when we were around my English-speaking family. We had lots of time alone, and I would tell him stories and explain everything in Spanish, even if I thought I was sometimes speaking incorrectly.
I suggest starting to do this with your daughter — before she is old enough to really argue with you — to make yourself more comfortable with the change. Whenever you two are alone or for certain activities (i.e. bathtime), speak only Spanish. You may worry that she will be confused, but I bet you’ll be surprised at how much she understands because of your body language and the fact that she already knows the routine. Slowly add in Spanish story time, Spanish TV programs (check out a previous review I did of the online Speekee TV: http://www.spanglishbaby.com/2011/04/draft-speekee-tv-review-and-giveaway/ or you can search YouTube for “Pocoyo en español”), and little phrases throughout the day. This is as much for your own confidence level as it is for teaching her.
Any Spanish she learns is better than no Spanish! You are sharing an invaluable skill with her. Make Spanish something fun and personal that you share with her, rather than something stressful, and it will happen naturally.
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