Bilingualism is a gift, a legacy that is handed down lovingly, nurturing our kids with a heady mix of tradition and ambition. When you speak more than one language, it says you’re ready to stretch out and straddle the world to see it more completely, with nuance. It means you have roots and a history that spans continents and seas and points to a melding of cultures, an inevitable and necessary adaptation driven by vision and resilience. And it speaks of bravery, overcoming the fear of sounding “stupid” and the strength to make your way — and even prosper — in the world. For these reasons, I insist that my three sons, ages 2, 12, and 13, speak only Spanish at home.
When I speak to my American-born sons in Spanish, I’m trying to make them smarter and more adaptable, and ultimately enjoy a wider range of opportunities, while reminding them of who they are and where they come from. I grew up in Mexico City speaking only Spanish, although I studied a little English in school, and even attended graduate school in the United States. However, growing up monolingual made it more difficult to master English later in life and find employment opportunities.
Time and time again, people spoke down to me or did not consider me for job opportunities because of my thick accent. Once, while returning to the U.S. from Europe, an immigration agent spoke rudely to me, embarrassing me in front of my family, because I had misunderstood him. From there, I resolved that my children would grow up fully bilingual so they wouldn’t have to struggle like me to get ahead in America.
Experts agree that the best time to learn new languages is before age 10. Young brains are wired to pick up languages and create new neural connections that then facilitate the acquisition of even more languages, making the child better able to problem-solve and think critically, while improving their creative and listening skills. Of course, I want to give my boys that advantage. So, they will grow up speaking perfect English like the natives they are, but also Spanish to stay connected to the family, cultures, and places that were so important to my own childhood development.
In the case of my children, they attend a French school where they learn a third language, while surrounded by students who also speak two or three languages. So within their little bubble, they feel quite at ease switching from one language to another, and are rightly proud of that ability.
Most Americans, however, aren’t so preoccupied with bilingualism, perhaps because English is the world’s dominant language with 1.35 billion people worldwide for whom it’s a first or second language. And while roughly half of the global population is at least bilingual, and almost 65 percent of Europeans can hold a conversation in another language, according to the U.S. Census Bureau only 21 percent of Americans speak more than one language. Nonetheless, according to Dr. Francois Grosjean, a Swedish professor of psycholinguistics, this represents an amazing rise in bilingualism in the US. Allowing for languages, he wrote in Psychology Today, “Can only lead to a person’s personal enrichment, increased ties between generations and cultures, and more diversity in job opportunities.”
It can, however, still feel daunting raising fully bilingual kids in America, with so much anti-Latino sentiment. I recall taking a “Mommy and Me” class with one of my sons and feeling ostracized by the other moms in the group. Perhaps because I spoke to him in Spanish and my complexion is darker than his, they may have assumed I was his nanny and didn’t pay me attention. And I can’t help but notice that some people are impatient and condescending when they hear my accent, even at the doctor’s office, where I am sometimes not treated respectfully.
According to the Pew Research Center, 20 percent of Hispanics experienced criticism for speaking Spanish, despite it being America’s second most-popular language while 19 percent of respondents reported being told to return to their home country. I have mentally rehearsed what I would say if someone ever got in my face about speaking Spanish. Yet that same defiance and pride is what drives me to ensure that my kids speak Spanish and English to be afforded respect and courtesy.
So, how do I raise bilingual children in a largely monolingual society? For starters, I speak to them only in Spanish — always. And resist their attempts to respond in English or even Spanglish. They used to protest, saying, “But you understood me!” when I responded to their English with “Que?” But now, they know better. The only exception to this rule is when we are among non-Spanish speakers, and in that case, we revert to English so as not to exclude them.
I also expose my kids to Spanish-language media content such as books, music, television shows, and movies. And we travel to Spanish-speaking countries, like Mexico and Spain whenever possible. There is no substitute for full immersion and these trips foster a greater understanding and pride in the language and diverse cultures.
As a family, also keep regular contact with our Spanish-speaking family and cultivate friendships with other Spanish-speakers or polyglots to normalize the habitual use of Spanish in social situations.
My best secret: Be consistent and keep the conversation going. Siguen hablando en Español, and keep that English crisp!