Bilingual is Better

boy reading

When my twins were 18 months old, and I was waiting for them to turn babble into words, I still wondered: would they say agua or water? Más or more?

Thinking back, it was a preposterous thought. My husband Adrian and I had spoken only Spanish to them since they were three months old. Having English-speaking toddlers was a linguistic impossiblity.

Yet I, an Irish-American who learned Spanish as a second language, doubted whether I could really pull this whole bilingual thing off — even with a native Spanish speaker for a husband.

Of course Spanish was the twins’ first – and four years later still their dominant – language.

But the journey hasn’t been easy, and I wanted to share some insights on raising bilingual kids for parents just starting out.

While many of these are lessons for parents for whom, like me, Spanish is a second language, some will resonate regardless of your fluency level.

Here’s what my family has found:

It didn’t take long to adjust to speaking to our kids in my second language

I had lived abroad, and conducted business, friendships and courtships in Spanish…but I’d never uttered a word of Spanish baby talk. I didn’t even have the vocabulary for it. So even though we had both decided we wanted to raise our kids to be bilingual, we had a late start. My husband Adrian, a Cuban-American who grew up in a bilingual household, hesitated too. We had a hard time committing, until a friend who was raising her kids bilingual in Chile made it pretty clear: “If you want them to be bilingual, you have to start now. And don’t stop.” I started imitating my in-laws’ baby talk. It took three weeks of awkward starts and stops to fully adjust, and we’ve never looked back. Now it’s awkward to speak to the kids in English.

Having a committed partner helps

I’m lucky that Adrian and I were equally committed to this. On those rough parenting days, I’m sure I would have given in to English if he weren’t there to keep me on track (and vice versa.)  In fact, when I get really mad at the kids, I resort to English from time to time. I’ve needed his support to stick with it.

Don’t underestimate the effect of your decisions on other family members

My parents, who only understand basic Spanish, are fully in support of our plans for raising the kids bilingual. That said, the process hasn’t been easy on them. For a good year, between the time the kids started talking and when they began to fully understand English at preschool, my parents struggled at times to communicate with the boys. I didn’t acknowledge that properly at the time. It was hard to realize it as it was happening, and I was so focused on the long-term goal.

I can’t control what languages other people speak to my children – not even my in-laws!

Isn’t that a universal truth of life and marriage – that you can’t control other people? Of course! But somehow, in my pre-kid, deluded head, I thought that if asked, they would unequivocally speak to the kids in Spanish. I failed to take into account that my in-laws are most comfortable speaking in both languages – simultaneously – starting a sentence in one and ending in another. I had to stop being such a control freak – and learn to cherish the Spanish poems and songs my father-in-law continues to teach them.

Don’t be afraid of your accent and grammatical missteps

I know the native-Spanish speaking moms at my preschool notice when I struggle to find the right word to say in the morning, or have a conjugation fail (which is often  – who invented the subjunctive anyway?)  But you know, despite my less than Giselle Bundchen-like body, I spend the summer at the pool in a bathing suit too. I let my flaw flag fly. The research is on my side, too, showing that more exposure to the language – even with the missteps – is a benefit.

Exposing them to English isn’t a bad thing

I went into this as a purist, considering any exposure to English as toxic. I tried to remove it from my bookshelf and my radio dial, even looked (unsuccessfully) for a bilingual preschool I liked. I was adamant. I didn’t really have to be. By surrounding them with spoken Spanish at home, we’ve been able to make it work – even with an English-language bedtime story from time to time.

Be prepared for ignorant questions

I’m lucky; I live in Miami, where raising bilingual kids isn’t exactly a novel idea. Se habla español pretty much everywhere. I’m still surprised, though, by the number of ignorant questions I get when people hear me talking to the kids in Spanish. My favorite: But how will they learn English?

Um, at their monolingual school in the U.S. of A?

I laugh at that last one, but I also know that the kids are approaching a critical moment in their language development. In January, the boys will be five. Kindergarten awaits, and the more time they spend in school, the more friendships they make in English, the harder it will be to maintain their Spanish.

I’m bracing myself. I hope in five years, I’ll be able to write again about how we made it work, but I can’t be sure.

Adelante, Adelante, Adelante. 

{Photo via sonderborgdk}

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