Wednesday, March 16, 2011

I grew up in a Spanish-speaking household. I was born in LA, my mom was born in Texas, my grandmother was born right here in Oakland, and my great grandfather was born in Colorado, so the fact that we've been able to hold onto the language for so many generations is quite remarkable. Learning Spanish was never an option for me. I was fully immersed in it from birth and wasn't really exposed to English until I started preschool. My mom was a single parent and I spent most of my time either with her or a Spanish-speaking babysitter. My whole world was in Spanish including the telenovelas I watched with my babysitter (I don't condone this, by the way) and my playmates, who were usually my Spanish-speaking cousins. Even after I learned English, I was only allowed to speak Spanish at home. I have many vivid memories of starting a conversation in English and my mom replying, "No te entiendo". This would usually result in me rolling my eyes or throwing a fit and then getting in trouble for being such a brat. It was frustrating because she did understand me, very well in fact. It took me years to realize that her sly way of forcing me to speak Spanish was for my own good and incredibly beneficial. As much as I fought it in my youth, I am now so grateful for her undying persistence.
One of the first things I was certain of when I decided to one day have a child, was that I had no intentions of breaking the mold and not teaching my child Spanish. Honestly, even the thought of not giving it a valiant effort makes me cringe. Yes, we're all (or most of you reading, anyway) Americans, but we also come from some place else and it's a little sad to me that as a culture, we tend to lose some of that generation after generation. I'm not saying I want to send my kid to school in a sombrero or anything, but I would like him/her to somehow be in touch with their roots. Fully surrounding a child with a language, like I was, would obviously be the best and easiest option... but, what if only one of the parents speaks that language? I would assume that that would make things slightly more complicated. Aside from a few simple phrases such as "let's go" and "I don't speak Spanish; my wife speaks Spanish", Joe isn't exactly a Spanish savant. Our current plan is for me to speak to the baby exclusively in Spanish and for Joe to only speak English. I've done lots of research on this and studies have shown that although this is a highly effective method, children who are raised this way tend to develop their verbal skills a fair amount of time later than children who are learning to talk in only one language. I guess I'm ok with this? I just don't want to inhibit my child's learning abilities in any way. So, I'm curious... are any of you raising your child(ren) in a bilingual household? Or, were you raised learning two languages at the same time? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages you've found? I know this is going to be a difficult process and I don't want to be in over my head. I'd love to hear any tips or suggestions you might have.

Photo, jvcluis


  1. No suggestions, but we're planning on raising our children to be bilingual (English/German) and I have done a bit of reading around the topic. Teaching your child some basic sign language can help them get over the frustration of communicating in words as they master two languages. I think the positives of knowing two languages by the age of 4 far outweigh any initial communication disadvantages. You should definitely stick with it.

  2. well, the kids i nannied for for years have an american mama and an italian papa. he only spoke to them in italian. he didnt make them speak back, tho. as far as i can tell it didn't slow down their learning at all. and if it did, big deal. learning 2 things might take a little longer than learning one? anyways. they understand every word he says but dont really speak italian. though i know they *can*. you know what i mean? stick to it! it will be great!

  3. My cousins, who are my age, grew up in Nepal with an exclusively English-speaking American father, Chinese-speaking mother, and Nepalese-speaking nanny, and they speak all three languages fluently, though neither started talking until they were about 2 1/2. They're both extremely articulate, verbal adults - one working in publishing now.

  4. Oh, as someone who's trying to learn French as an adult to be able to keep my job in Canada, I so envy anyone who grows up with more than one language! I think the (possible) delays in speech are more than off-set by the huge lifetime benefits of early exposure to multiple languages. Think of it not as (potentially) inhibiting your child's early learning but as enhancing their learning later in life - it's so much easier to learn other languages once you have more than one.

  5. I don't have children, and my husband and I only know a small amount of Spanish but I would LOVE to be able to give that gift to my children. To be raised bilingual would be an amazing thing, I hope you're able to do it!

  6. We're planning to raise our kids to be bilingual English/French when the time comes. Unfortunately I don't speak any French and my half-French boyfriend only speaks it very occasionally (although he is fluent) so I think we'll be roping in his Mum, his sister and her French husband to help!

    On a whole different level I have a Danish/English friend who is married to a Mexican/Russian man and they have 2 kids. They speak Danish at school and English to their Mum, their Dad speaks to them in Russian and when they go to visit his family in Mexico they are spoken to in Spanish! It makes my head hurt just thinking about it but they seem to get along with it just fine!

  7. i am a first-generation filipino-american and my parents always spoke tagalog to each other when i was growing up, but spoke english to me and my brother. i think it's funny you say that kids are slower to develop with more than one language in the household because i didn't really speak until i was 3. my parents and grandma thought i was autistic until they got me tested around that same time. as a result, i am not autistic, i fully understand tagalog (and speak it, if i REALLY wanted to, but my accent is horrid), but my first language is definitely english.

    the whole generation thing is sad too. my dad knows tagalog along with a few other filipino dialects, but only knows a decent amount of spanish, even though his dad and his uncles would only speak spanish when they would hang out. and here i am, barely getting by, living in san diego and having awful spanish, despite taking 3 years of it in school. HA! :/

  8. I love that you are doing this, I think your kid will greatly benefit from knowing 2 languages. But will dad be okay when your kid is older and you two speak in Spanish to eachother but he doesn't understand a word? I'm just curious how that will work. Maybe Joe needs to learn Spanish, too!

  9. Oh, how I can relate to this. I feel like you pretty much described my childhood (only I got away with speaking more English). I hated speaking Portuguese when I was a kid, and I was such a snot about it. But I am fluent, and I will be teaching my kid(s) (when I have any) to speak it, too.

    I grew up completely surrounded by both English and Portuguese, and I didn't actually realize they were two different languages until I was about 2 and a half. I started talking when I was 9 months old, and I know my siblings started talking well before age 2, so I don't know if I'd be too worried about my child talking late because of a bilingual household.

    My husband and I will definitely have to split language duties, as he only knows about 5 words in Portuguese. But it's too important to me for my kids to not learn it. I plan to ask my family to speak (mostly) Portuguese with them, and I'd also like to put them in Portuguese classes.

    And who knows? Maybe my husband will learn some, too.

  10. I love your sweet blog! And for what it's worth, go for the multiple languages. What's a few months of speech delay compared to being more versatile in jobs or actually experiencing different cultures when you travel, not to mention that scientists think bilingualism offers protection against Alzheimer's.

  11. I know a few people who were raised bilingual (and I have a degree in linguistics, so a little bit of knowledge from that too) and I would say that "no te entiendo" was the best gift your mama gave you. If will be wonderful if you can speak to him always in Spanish, but if you insist that he always replies in Spanish, that is what will really make all the difference.

    It's true that bilingual kids' language skills run a little behind it the early years but they soon overtake, and learning languages uses parts of the brain differently that have shown to benefit in what on the surface would seem to be unrelated ways too (like problem-solving, I think... but I am reference-less as I try to remember...).

  12. My sister and her husband are doing this with their daughter. She is only 18months, but everything appears to be on track.

  13. OH MY GOD, I just wrote the longest comment and it got deleted. Gah.

    D was raised in a similar situation, living with his mother (bilingual) and his paternal grandmother (English ONLY). His mom spoke to him in Spanish sometimes, but not exclusively. But he got enough exposure just from listening to her talk on the phone, going to family parties where all the adults spoke spanish, and his maternal grandmother visited for a few weeks every year and she doesn't speak any english. He is not crazy fluent (doesn't think in spanish) but he is completely competent once he gets on a roll.

    They didn't have any rules, and he was shy about actually speaking spanish, so he mostly didn't except with relatives who couldn't speak english. But once he was older and wanted to use it, it was all there. He did take all the levels of spanish in high school, which helped with the grammar and spelling that you don't necessarily get just from listening.

    So, you can totally do it. Just keep the exposure up, find some good kid videos in Spanish, maybe.

    We aren't planning on kids (as you know!) but this is one of the things I worry about most, were we to have kids eventually. I would absolutely want them to grow up speaking spanish, but I'm hopeless. I can read, I can understand conversations, I cannot speak. AT ALL. I'm a socal failure.

  14. I grew up speaking English with my dad and French with my mom. One thing my mom says is that she was insistent on speaking French with me at all times, even when it could be perceived as rude (e.g. when out with other people who didn't speak French).

    She said she knew the immersion and continuity was important. Luckily I grew up in a very diverse city and people understood what she was doing. I imagine it's the same for you there.

    One disadvantage for me was that aside from my mom, I was in a totally anglophone environment. As a Canadian, I did take French in school, which helped with grammar but not fluency. Part of me wishes that I'd been sent to a French school.

    Also, my family is not French. My mom is self-taught and passed it on to me. It's the best gift anybody has ever given me. But not having extended family to reinforce it did probably hurt my fluency. I'm an excellent French speaker, but I don't sound like a native and my English is much better.

    Living where you are, your child will have more opportunities to speak with more people in Spanish, I'm guessing.

    Also, my mom was very careful to not let my English suffer, which is part of why they sent me to English schools. With a little bit of immersion, which I've never had, my French would be on par with my English.

    Anyway, my in-laws are Francophone, and I live near them now, so my French has gotten much better in the last few months.

    My goal is to be fluent enough to pass it on to a child.

    Anyway, this is a super long reply, hopefully there's something useful in it for you!

  15. Oh, and as if I haven't already said enough -

    1) I did speak later, and my language was muddled at first (speaking French to my dad, in particular), but it got sorted pretty quickly and I have no problems at all now.

    2) I really respect that you want to carry on the linguistic legacy in your family. I ended up taking Italian in undergrad because that's my family's language. They immigrated during a time when you didn't teach kids the language of the "old country," so my mom never learned it.

  16. I am an American Au Pair living in Finland right now. In my experience with Adia, the two year old I nanny, learning two languages definitely delays speaking but not so much comprehension. My host mom was showing me a book called 'The Bilingual Edge' that has a ton of information on raising a bilingual child.

  17. One of my friends grew up in a similar situation to you - Italian was spoken at home and she only really learnt English at kindergarten.

    She has since had her own baby and she speaks to him exclusively in Italian, as does her mother who babysits from time to time. Joseph was a bit slower to speak - around the age of 2 he still was pretty quiet. But after age 3 he has come through and now speaks both Italian and English (sometimes both in the same sentence - he's still working on that!).

    I think it is definitely worthwhile and the fact that the child is a little quieter as a toddler is really not a big deal in the scheme of things!

  18. We did a lot of research on that subject and we decided that I will speak French and my husband will speak English. Other people did that in my family and it worked fine.

    Two things they told me:

    1) Yes, they develop their verbal skills later than children who are learning to talk in only one language but they also have a richer vocabulary (and this is a pretty good thing if you ask me).

    2) Depending where you live (here in Montreal most people - in stores, restaurants - speak French), a very important thing will be to put the kid (when it's older) in a bilingual environment (it is so easy to lose interest in one language and just focus on the "easy" one). For example, we will put our kid in a bilingual day care and hopefully and bilingual elementary school.

    Is it clear?...ah, my parents didn't teach me English...only French!!! And since I'm sick and sleepy, well, my English can be pretty bad!!!

  19. I know a couple kids who are being raised with multiple languages (one family Dutch, in America, and another family Mandarin, in the Netherlands), and from what I can tell, it works beautifully. In both cases, the mothers are the ones who speak the "other" language, and in both cases, the dads are learning the "other" language from/with their child! Apparently, this can be pretty amusing to the moms, to hear their husbands speak their native language like a toddler.

    Both moms are pretty consistent in speaking their native tongue exclusively when they're alone with their kid(s), and the kids are very adept at switching back and forth. One child is two and a half, and seems if anything a little more advanced than her peers, verbally.

    Go for it! You'll be so glad you did! And I bet there will be other families doing the same thing that would love to get together for Spanish-immersion hang-outs.

  20. My parents immigrated to the states from Taiwan, and only spoke Mandarin Chinese to me. Technically it's my first language, I even remember my older brother coming home from kindergarten, bragging that he spoke English all day, and I said "I can too!" and made up a bunch of gibberish. I got to pre school, and somehow learned enough English to communicate with the teachers and other students. No one in my home taught me, I still wonder how that happened.

    My grandmother primarily spoke Hakka, an ethnic dialect, to my parents, and I could speak it back to her. I somehow knew that it was "Grandma's language." Now, I can only say 3 phrases in Hakka, and can understand maybe 10% of a conversation. But, I can hear the vague similarities in grammar structure to Mandarin, and when my parents discuss logistical topics, (or talk about me in front of me!) I can get the gist of what they mean. A lot of it is tone, but somehow a deep rooted understanding exists somewhere inside my brain.

    Now, shamefully, my Chinese is at maybe a 5th grade conversational level, and my English is my primary language. Growing up, my parents spoke to me in Chinese and I would respond in English. I don't think they did this as purposefully as many parents, but rather as immigrants they felt more comfortable communicating in their native language. Now that I'm older, I try to respond to them in Chinese, though admittedly 1 sentence can switch between English and Chinese every 2 or 3 words. My husband gets a kick out of listening to it. I definitely understand more than I can speak, and can catch on when I don't understand 50% of the words in a sentence.

    I think this has impacted how I can assess situations in my personal and professional life. I'm in the architecture and design industry, and I don't need every single answer in order to move forward in a project, and I can deal with clients who frustratingly can not articulate what they want/need. I can also understand personal group dynamics faster than most people. I think it's a mental skill of filling in the blanks from all sides.

    An interesting thing happened to me a few weeks ago when I visited my family. (They're in CA, I've lived on the East coast for 10 years) In some cases, it was easier to describe things to my brother with a Chinese phrase. I noticed that my brain defaulted to the "easier" way of getting a point across. I also noticed my internal monologue started being in Chinese.

    So even if your child starts speaking later than "normal," and gets the languages mixed up, I think what's far more important is that you are allowing the brain do develop communication skills, which I think is more deeply rooted and harder to learn later in life than language skills.

  21. Celia, I think this can absolutely work if you stick with it, like the other commenters have said. I grew up speaking only Italian until I went to preschool. My parents would not speak to me in English and forced both sets of grandparents to only speak to me in proper Italian, not their respective dialects. It worked and I'm fully fluent, but I grew up going to Italy every other summer and staying with family, so that definitely helped.
    My husband has a predominantly German background - his family came over generations ago- and he only speaks English, except for some basic Spanish.
    I want my kids to speak Italian, so when we have children, we're attempting to do the same as you and Joe. Please keep us posted on your progress...I'm so curious! I guess my only concern is that I wish we could both communicate with the baby in the same way/language, and I want him/her to come out of this actually fluent, as opposed to just understanding it.
    My cousin is trying an Italian immersion nursery school but I haven't asked her about price, and we could probably never afford it. Good luck, and sorry for the crazy-long comment!

  22. You're going to have the luckiest bubs. I so wish that I had learned another language when I was little as I'm completely incapable of learning now.

    I know a lot of sprogs who are being raised bilingual by one gaelic speaking parent and one english speaking and they're all doing just fine and I think that in the end they will be much more articulate than single-language folks.

  23. I've always wished that I was raised bilingual, it must be such a gift!

    I originally came to the US as an au pair for a Danish/American family and I spoke only Danish to the kids. The twins who were 18 months when I arrived picked it up super fast and spoke an equal amount of Danish and English. There was a tiny language delay but nothing to worry about.
    It was harder with the bigger boy, 4 years old, because he hadn't been exposed to Danish as much plus he went to an English speaking pre-school so he would always reply to me in English though he understood me fine.
    Unfortunately they've lost most it by now being in school and the dad not really making the effort to speak to them in Danish. It's really such a shame!
    Best of luck with the Spanish ;-)

  24. We're raising our daughter bilingual. My German husband speaks only German to her and I speak mainly English to her (my German is conversational but my grammar is funky). Unfortunately we speak English to each other 11 months out of the year but we're hoping the combination of that approach, visits from a grandmother and step-brother who speak only German and eventually a German language preschool will enable her fluency in both languages

    From what I understand, your approach is the best but really any second language attempt is worthwhile.

    Screw the late speech development worries if it means multi-lingual later in life. It's an awesome gift to give your child.

  25. My grandparents spoke Japanese exclusively in their home while my dad was growing up. Part of this was because my grandmother is from Japan (she moved here in her early 20s), and her English was broken. My dad completely resisted/rebelled and as a result when we came along they spoke only English to us. I'm always a little sad that I lost that opportunity to learn the language at a young age. I guess this is my roundabout way of saying do it!

  26. wow, guys! thanks for all the input. i will definitely keep you updated on the progress.

    @giovanna yes, i'm going for fluency vs. just understanding. i feel that my friends that understand but don't actually speak a second language are frustrated by not being able to do so.

    @rachel you're not a socal failure! ;) it's MUCH harder to learn a new language as an adult than as a baby/child.

    @ktaylor just like rachel, my husband understands A LOT of spanish. we've been together for so long that he's been exposed to it enough to pick it up. learning to understand a language isn't very hard; learning to speak it is a whole different ball game.

    @olivia joe's in the same boat as you. he is 100% italian, but i guess it was very common for the older generations to not want to pass it on. trust me, i was cursing his grandparents when we were in italy. ;)

  27. Do it, do it, do it!!!! If there is one thing I could change about myself this very minute, it would be to speak Spanish. If for no other reason (and since you've done your research, you know that there are about five million and one reasons) you can know that your child will have a major leg up in the job market. People who are bilingual (esp. Spanish) will beat out folks w/ more experience for jobs in many markets.

    I know a little boy being raised w/ three languages (his mom is Spanish/English-speaking American, his dad is English/Italian-speaking Italian and he is being raised in Italy). Yes, he did speak later than his peers, but those brain synapses he created will blow every other kids out of the water.

    And having kids w/ language delays (not at all related to bilingualism, although that would be much preferable ;) ) there are WAY worse things that could happen and it gives you as parents good exercise in staying in tune w/ your kids if they don't communicate in conventional ways.

    We did do baby signing, though and I can't recommend it enough, so you might want to consider throwing that on top of the Spanish (as if your plate weren't full enough already :) )

  28. Celia, I heard this story on NPR the other day and was reminded of your post: I think it's a great idea.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences!