5 Years of Bilingual Parenting

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My son, Isaías, enjoying a Florida winter.

Tomorrow, my son turns 5. It seems like a new milestone, like he’s moving into the big kid phase. He’s tying his shoes and learning to ride a bike without training wheels. Kindergarten is right around the corner, and I’m sure time will continue to whizz by as he discovers elementary school life.

Isaiah’s 5th birthday isn’t just a turning point for him, though. It’s a day for me to pause and reflect on everything I’ve done as a parent in the past five years. He’s my first and (so far) only biological child. He has been my reason to remain bilingual all this time, or at least in a fully functioning manner.

Our bilingual experience hasn’t been without its difficulties. Isaiah has gone through the natural phases of rejecting Spanish or getting frustrated with it, and so have I. He has the added stress of living in two homes, both bilingual but in different ways. Keeping to one method of immersing him in Spanish has not been possible, so we’ve all had to be flexible.

Although it pains me to say it, we speak mostly English in our home now — which was partially Isaiah’s choice. This is a big shift from when Isaiah was born up until he was about 3, when his father and I spoke only Spanish to him. Now, he’s around his older English-dominant stepsisters and speaks English at school. However, I have found that although he doesn’t practice Spanish as much as he probably needs to, this English invasion hasn’t been damaging to his desire to know and use Spanish.

Nearly half of his 27-student preschool class speaks Spanish at home (the advantage of living where we do), all three of his teachers are Latina, and he spends about 40% of his time with his papi and abuelos, who speak exclusively Spanish to him. Every time he hears Spanish in public or reads a bilingual book, he makes a comment about how he understands all of the words, not just half of them. There are certain things he only wants to watch in Spanish, like the movie Robots. He gets excited when he hears other languages, like Arabic and Chinese, and frequently wants me to teach him words in Italian, my rusty third language.

The greatest thing about this age is that Isaiah’s now completely aware of the distinction between languages and can have conversations about it. I no longer feel that I am conducting an experiment by trying to expose him to Spanish without him noticing. He’s consciously participating in the search for elements of his second culture.

As we approach the possibility of sending him to a dual language immersion program next school year, we are trying to boost the amount of positive moments we have in Spanish and about Spanish. I am loving that we can be playful and relaxed about it, since I believe everyone learns better when they aren’t really thinking about it.

I am proud to be raising a bilingual child, but most of all to be living in a comfortably bilingual family. Having the choice to switch from one language to another is what it’s all about at the end of the day, and everyone in my household is exercising that choice differently. Here’s to the new year, and the last five!

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