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Bilingual Kids: A Mother's Lament


Can I just whine for a second? Not like over the top melodrama, but just a little bit of “do ya feel me?” Because raising bilingual kids, while not necessarily harder than I expected, has been maybe a bit more emotional than I anticipated.

Gabriella recently asked me to watch Clifford the Big Red Dog. So I put it on in Spanish because Netflix lets you do those sorts ofthings.

Then she started: “Mom, I can’t hear them. I don’t understand it. Mom, I want an English show. An Eeeeeenglishhhh show, Mommy!” And I felt defeated.

I mean, seriously, when everything with a preschooler is a battle, TV is supposed to be the truce. The one thing we both agree on for a moment of peace.

That day I told her to keep trying and pay attention. She eventually settled in and later told me what it was about. Then, she asked, “Now can I watch an English one?” Like that one didn’t really count.

And I totally knew this would happen. I knew she’d be more comfortable in English. Despite Papa speaking Spanish, irregardless of Spanish-speaking caretakers, no matter Spanish church, I knew English would be her primary language.

Still, I harbored dreams that she’d hesitate over high school exams that ask demographic questions like “What is your first language?” I envisioned her wavering because I’m equally fluent in the two languages of my household, she’d think.

But alas, I know that’s not the case. Even when Billy asks her questions in Spanish, she already responds in English. I mean, I knew that would happen. It happens to everyone. I didn’t assume we were this wild aberration of bilingual education. Still, if my heart could cry, little tears would be pooling.

She’s such a communicator, which I love (even when I want to amputate my own ears with a butter knife) because I see myself in her. Maybe one day, she too will have an elementary school teacher who will utter the phrase "verbal diarrea." Thanks for that, Ms. Kincaid!

But her passion to communicate means her Spanish fails her. Sure, there are moments when she pushes her face into her brother’s bellowing, “Come tu comida!” And I can hardly tell her to get back into her own chair because I’m cheering on the inside. But I know it’s not enough.

There’s an episode of Modern Family where Gloria hires a Spanish tutor for her son Manny. He is very unenthusiastic because he wants to take French, claiming “Spanish just doesn’t come naturally to me.”

Gloria is heart-broken and later admits that she hates having no one to talk with in her first language. The show responds with her husband Jay deciding to learn, but Manny is let off the hook. And for me, there was still sadness in that resolution.

I have spent so much time with young adults who lament how little they know of their parents’ language, their heritage language. I don’t want my kids to experience that loss one day, but perhaps it is somewhat unavoidable.

I haven’t given up hope, and in fact, we've been exploring bilingual elementary school options. I know this challenge is par for the course for any bilingual family. And I know we will experience it all again with Isaac, who currently shouts agua and vamanos along with bubbles and ball.

Let me close with a shout out to all my fellow parents wading in the multilingual pool. Keep going! We can do this! It’s not all neat and tidy, and it definitely requires commitment and re-commitment. But our children, whatever their level of fluency one day, will be grateful that we didn’t give up.

That’s what I tell myself anyway. Do ya feel me?


9 comments

  1. Mommy Maleta11:41 AM

    I recently signed up for a program called Virtual Lingos (you can see an ad on the sidebar of my blog) because I was not following through on my idealistic plan to teach my kids Spanish. So basically they have a 1/2 hr tutoring session once a week & get homework which helps me follow through on working with them. #MKB

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  2. Susie7:52 PM

    Don't give up hope! I had a Spanish professor in college (who is American, first language English, but fluent in like 5 languages!) who only spoke Spanish to the kids at home, and his wife spoke English. He just kept on with the Spanish when they responded in English. Eventually they got it. All 4 of his kids are bilingual now (ages 19, 17, 13, 9). I'm a Spanish teacher and am planning on sending our children to the immersion school that our elementary offers. I can't wait! I know there will be times when they are frustrated, but one day it will click. It's amazing seeing/hearing the students who have been in immersion school PK-5th grade how fluent they are! Don't stress, your kiddos will come around!

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  3. Ooooh nice. I'll check it out! Thanks!

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  4. Love hearing how positive your experience has been, Susie. Thanks for sharing!

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  5. Mommy Maleta11:02 AM

    Sarah, feel free to let me know if you have any questions about VL.

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  6. I am dreading that! Dreading that so much. Right now she is still eager to learn, read, watch TV, sing and play with me in Russian. Yes, I understand that living in an english speaking country English will be the language she will be communicating in daily, studying in, dealing with her friends, but...I still harbor the hope that with my effort and enthusiasm for the Russian language I will get her through the years when it's an effort for her to choose Russian (my language) and when the time comes and she is glad she knows it, that would be my best reward. Thank you for a great post! I feel you and I feel like this so many times, and will feel like this even more in the future. Thank you for putting it out there! Anna from Russian Step By Step

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  7. Great to hear from you, Anna. I agree with you. When that day comes that our kids are thankful for their second language, we'll let out a big WAHOO! Totally worth it.

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  8. Ginger @ School en casa3:48 AM

    I've been wandering around on your blog for well over an hour; love it all. Just wanted to add a word of encouragement to not give up on Spanish. It does get harder as they start school. If you can get into a dual immersion program, do it! Part of the reason I homeschool is to keep the bilingualism, but I'm the one who speaks Spanish (not a native, but studied in Ecuador and fluent, so have always spoken to our children in Spanish) so it's a little different. The book The Bilingual Edge helped me a lot when we began our bilingual journey.

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  9. Hi Ginger! Thanks so much for browsing around and for leaving your sweet encouragement. Interestingly, my oldest has been trying to speak Spanish over the last week out of nowhere. It's been a real encouragement to us. So funny how that works! Thank you for the book suggestion. Adding it to my wish list now!

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