raising a bilingual a child challenges

Did that headline shock you? It shocked me to write it and admit it because I’ve been claiming for years now that my 5-year old is completely bilingual. I mean, we’re doing everything right, or at least we were for a while.

First let me tell you why and how I realized she’s not as bilingual as I thought and then I’ll explain where I think we messed up.

Fisher-Price invited Roxana and I to be one of their Play Ambassadors and, as such, we have some trips we’ll be taking with them during the year. One of the trips is a visit to the Azul Beach, a Karisma hotel in the Riviera Maya, to learn how children reach developmental milestones around the world and in different cultures. I took advantage of this opportunity to arrive a few days early and bring my daughter with me to Cancun to visit my sister-in-law, her husband and my niece and nephew — Camila’s primos. The trip was long overdue since we hadn’t seen them in two years and had only kept in touch through Skype and such.

Of course, I was super excited because this would mean Camila would not only get to nurture the bond with her primos, but also to polish her Spanish the week before starting kindergarten at the dual immersion program she was accepted into. Even more so since the last month we’ve been talking so much about her new school and how it will be mostly in Spanish. She always seems excited and eager, but then, randomly, she’ll spill out that she doesn’t know how to speak Spanish, that she prefers English. I deny it. I insist that she speaks Spanish very well and that she just needs to practice it. She responds that she doesn’t know it that well and that she mixes too much. I keep insisting it’s okay, and that she just needs to practice and not be afraid.

I honestly thought that as soon as we got to Mexico and she was surrounded by her primos she would switch that imaginary Spanish chip on. It’s been two days and it’s not turning on.

Camila and her primos had an immediate connection, especially with her prima who is only three months older than her; they’ve been inseparable and loving to each other. The way the relationship is developing is that Camila speaks to them in English and they respond in Spanish — just like what’s been happening at home. They kinda understand English and Camila understands Spanish perfectly, so there’s no real need for her to speak it. I’ve nagged a bit with the “Aquí hablamos español” and such, just like I did last year when we went to El Salvador, but it doesn’t seem to be working this time. Plus, I don’t want to force it on her at all.

I do see her trying and she’ll throw words in Spanish here and there, but the truth I’ve had a hard time admitting is that she can’t string conversational sentences together like she can in English — not even close.

And here is where I realized where I had messed up. Back in February, Camila was accepted into a fabulous dual immersion program in Spanish. That day was full of excitement, but also of a sense of relief that I could finally relax with the Spanish exposure. Meaning, my husband and I still talk to her only in Spanish, but we now allow television and music in English; we no longer translate the books we read out loud to Spanish; and we got lazy about asking her to respond to us in Spanish. Aside from that, her pre-school was in English — because we had no choice, — so her exposure to it was vast and her language of play became English.

Now, faced with the realization that she’s not truly as outward and expressive bilingual as I thought, I wonder if I did her a disservice or if it will all really come to her once she starts kindergarten next week?

I’m sure it’s all in her, and maybe I’ll be surprised by the end of the week when she’s had plenty of immersion and her Spanish would have flourished again. Regardless, it’s been a good wake up call that this journey to true bilingualism requires plenty of attention and awareness, and that I need to follow my own advice a whole lot more.

Please share with me in the comments, have you had a bilingual setback with your kids or yourself? How did you deal with it?

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