*** Want more information on raising multilingual children? Visit MomsRising's bilingual parenting resource site: http://action.momsrising.org/survey/bilingual_baby/?source=blog
Passing down traditions, culture, and language was always something I envisioned myself doing as a mother. When I married my husband, it dawned on me that I would be the sole provider of my culture within our little family. His ancestors are Scottish and German but he has no strong cultural connection to these countries. When our daughter was born, we agreed to pick a name that was phonetically accessible in both languages. I can honestly say that I practiced yelling the name with a heavy Spanish accent, as if mad, to determine if the name made the cut or not. Unknowingly this was the first step to our bicultural familia.
As a school psychologist, I am trained in children’s development and can access colleagues’ expertise regarding language and language development fairly easily… call it a job perk. When I was pregnant with our daughter I felt the need to line up as many ducks in a row as possible. Partly because that is me but also because all new moms tend to be a little overly cautious when it comes to the arrival of their first little love nugget. Regarding the language and language development duck, reading some articles about raising bilingual children helped but still felt like I needed more targeted direction. The Speech and Language Pathologist at my building confirmed what I had felt was best for us. My husband would speak in English to her all the time, while I would do Spanish from the beginning 100% of the time. And so, armed with our new plan we were eager to meet her and begin our adventure. Apparently, she was eager to begin her dual language life outside the womb too, she was born 5 weeks early in December 2013 and has been a brave little one from the beginning.
I can’t say that any part of this journey has been particularly easy or automatic. Raising bilingual bicultural children is a tremendous amount of work. I believe it requires quite a bit of self-awareness and a certain rebellious attitude. In the beginning it felt so odd speaking Spanish to Nugget “V” when we were out and about our English dominant world. Self awareness was essential for me to expose her to as much vocabulary as possible, even when we were doing simple things at home, knowing she was getting it from the world around her almost automatically.
As the months passed speaking Spanish to her became second nature. However, It became particularly trickier when we began meeting other monolingual families and she was starting to speak. Would I speak to her in English so the other around us would know the context of my communication with her? Wouldn’t this violate my Spanish only way? What if people were offended? What if they thought it was weird? This is where the rebellious attitude came in. I had to really explore my own insecurities as an ELL (English Language Learner) adult and realized that if I was to be this adventurer mamá I had to say “nimodos” (Oh, well!) This is my child, my family, my little clay to mold. I wanted her and our future kids to grow up proud of their heritage and as fluent as possible in their second language. As hard as it was for me, I made the choice to stick to 100% Spanish, no matter what… or where and I’m glad I did. If I take the time to explain to people how important it is for me to expose her to her second language, people have been 99% very very accepting of this. It also helps we live in a suburb of Chicago, a very culturally and ethnically diverse city, that makes raising bicultural children feel more normal than in other parts of the country.
As Nugget “V” was promoted to big sister, a new set of challenges came our way. Nugget “J” joined our family in January 2016. Would she speak English or Spanish to him? Did we need to ask her to choose one over the other? There were so many questions and many more unexpected ones. Like when she decided she wasn't interested in communicating with me much. I later realized it was because she was frustrated she couldn't express herself adequately in Spanish. I was plagued with doubt, was I doing the right thing? Was I being too strict? I realized my Spanish with mamá only ways were hindering our bond. I consulted once again with the speech pathologist and she basically told me to take a chill pill. I couldn't demand she speak a language because guess what? She is her own person. I then, shifted my structured ways and said mamá only speaks Spanish to the Nuggets but they can respond back in whatever they are most comfortable at the time. Sometimes its English, sometimes Spanish, and sometimes spanglish. This adventure is never straightforward and I continue to learn with them.
As our family continuous to grow, the challenges haven't necessarily taken a break. I imagine, just like with parenting, they never will. However, this is what makes life meaningful: putting in the hard work and dedication for a glimpse of a reward. When my kids bust out a phrase like “Ay Mija! Mira!!!” in the right context, I can’t help but laugh and feel like I’m not totally failing at this unguided, unchartered adventure.