What NOT To Do: 3 Cautions for Monolingual Parents in Bilingual Families

Tips for monolingual parents raising bilingual kids

From the moment that first test read "pregnant," it didn't take long before I was ordering books on Amazon. Of course, I skipped the standard topics and read next to nothing on childbirth, attachment parenting, or sleep training.

Nope. I was sitting on a plane, cracking open 7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child. I was discovering the OPOL method and other acronyms related to giving one's child the gift of two languages.

Friends asked me about my birth plan, but I thought nothing of it. Birth was just a means to an end. Language development and raising a bicultural baby were what occupied by parenting fantasies.

The only problem? Well, I don't actually speak two languages. I would be relying 100% on my Guatemalan husband Billy to make all my bilingual baby dreams come true.

Maybe it's because I know what it's like to be monolingual in a multicultural world. I nod and smile in Spanish-speaking circles (while running through approximately 43 crazy thoughts), and I freak out at church when they say my name into any kind of microphone.

I think these experiences contribute to why it's so important to me that we pass on both Spanish and English to our kids. Of course, we've been trying our hand at this for a while now, and I've learned a few things as the English-only-speaking mom in a bilingual-ish household. Here's some things you should not do.

Badger the Bilingual

The first year of our daughter's life, I repeated two phrases. "Why are crying?" (Which almost 5 years later continues to be a mystery. Oh, you dropped a piece of popcorn on the floor? I thought maybe your finger had been cut off based on this reaction.

My second go-to was "Speak more Spanish!" Almost anytime I heard my husband talking to our infant in English, I would utter this phrase. I tried polite. I tried exasperated. I tried sing-songy. It never really seemed to work.

What I learned is that it's lonely talking to a baby. Especially before they can really understand or engage you. Naturally, our survival instinct was to make jokes or talk "for her" for each other's amusement. Billy often spoke to her in English because he was really talking for my benefit. He wanted me to hear him bless her, sweet talk her, or mock her. (Parents of the year!)

That first year was so intense, and we were learning how to be a parenting team. My constant nagging for him to exclude me held no appeal.

Take Over

This strategy is the second cousin of the first. But when I wanted to stop begging, I tried more "subtle" tactics to remind Billy to speak Spanish. I just went for it. That's right. I can get that bilingual ball rolling!

Except I really can't.

Taking over the bilingual education can be an ill-advised strategy for the monolingual parent. For me, it involved a lot of Spanglish or just trying to roll my r's in the middle of English words.

I finally recognized that I needed to provide the space for my husband to take some ownership over our child's Spanish language learning. Me doing it was just going to confuse everyone.

As time has gone on, he has become significantly more invested. He loves hearing her try to ask him questions in Spanish. And as he witnesses our kids struggle to communicate fluently with Spanish-speaking relatives, he has a renewed sense of personal passion.

Complain About Being Left Out

This is one of my favorite things to do! After I badger my husband to speak more Spanish, I like to freak out when he does. (He loves this game, by the way.)

One of my sincere insecurities from the moment I read that book on the plane was that I would feel like an outsider in my own home. In my imaginary future, Billy and our teenagers are sitting around the dinner table, joking in Spanish and throwing their heads back in raucous laughter. I am pushing peas around my plate.

The first time my daughter spoke her first, uncoerced mixed-language sentence, that same fear resurfaced. But time has helped me recognize how important bilingualism is for them and how it will likely always be an uphill battle, so I need to stay committed.

And I find renewed motivation to pursue my own bilingualism. Hearing it at home and church has definitely helped. But of course, I still find myself just randomly shouting out words like "candela!" because it sounds pretty and confirms the idea that you just add an "a."

Raising a bilingual, bicultural has been a rich source of joy for us. It hasn't been without its challenges, but I will always encourage other families to go for it. And if you're a monolingual parent gently encouraging your bilingual spouse to teach your kids, I hope these tips help.

A version of this post originally appeared in on the bilingual parenting resource site SpanglishBaby, which is no longer active. 

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