The pressures and realities of raising bilingual kids

One of my reasons to move to Puerto Rico was so my kids could learn Spanish. A Bilingual school – or even a monolingual Spanish school – was extremely appealing. We found the perfect one.
Over the years, I’ve kept my list of short and long term goals in a binder. Repeatedly my lists include “become fluent in Spanish”.
If my kids and I don’t learn now, I’ll be adding “get over regret of lost opportunity to learn Spanish” on my future goal lists 🙁

Fast forward to now: two and a half years into our life here. My Spanish has improved exponentially and the kids continue to amaze me. But the trouble of having a bilingual ‘goal’ is that it’s completely ambiguous. Does that mean carrying on a conversation? I can do that. Keep up with a rowdy group of Spanish speakers at a party? well… depends on the topic but maybe next year I can check that off. My heart feels it means I can think and speak in Spanish without mapping out my sentence in my head. Converse quickly without thinking, mentally conjugating, and self doubting. And THAT seems a long way off. However, if you ask people who are monolingual English speakers, they would probably say I’m fluent enough.

As for the goal of my kids speaking Spanish? Even more subjective. They are little sponges, and so far haven’t resisted learning Spanish. I feel ebbs and flows, frustrations and pride. In Wisconsin I was around ONE other bilingual toddler (English/Italian). Here…sometimes I feel like every kid is more bilingual than mine.  And they all practice their English with my kiddos.  That’s why I like to hang out with the twins who speak only Spanish and French. Well, I also hang out with them because they’re really nice… 🙂

All these ideas cloud my mind daily. Nearly every time I say something to my kids in English the back on my mind tells me it’s a wasted opportunity to say it in Spanish.  Then the front of my mind realizes that I speak a ton in the subjunctive tense (ex: You should’ve finished your dinner, then you wouldn’t be hungry now.  I swerved the car otherwise I would’ve hit the dog) and I don’t know how to say my sentence in Spanish. I could take a moment a minute to muddle through it, check on Google translate, but by that time my kids have moved on, or dropped their crackers all over the car, or asked/demanded my attention for something else.  You know. Parenthood en general.

I’m a member of a parenting advice website, and on their facebook page a mother posted this:

While it doesn’t echo exactly what I feel, the sentiment behind never unclenching, feeling tense, and never fully present rings true. If I’m trying to use my full brain to think in a second language, then my full attention is not on my kids. If I’m letting my language practice slide in front of them, then the little voice sings, “wasted opportunity…” annoyingly in my head. Shut up you idiot. I’m doing the best I can.

I do appreciate the fact that they know WAY more Spanish than I ever did growing up.  And I need to remind myself that even if they aren’t babbling non-stop to their Spanish-speaking friends (which isn’t their personality anyway) they are developing a foundation for the language.  We use Spanish vocab for many routine parts of our lives – bedtime routine, school related routines, and they watch cartoons in Spanish.

And they are more and more bilingual every semester. I’m really proud. I want them to be able to take local classes, play with kids on the playground and know what their classmates are saying. So they don’t feel ostracized.

I’ve drafted this blog post over the last 4 months, and since then I’ve quit the bilingual parenting website. I did get good use out of it, but the $20 per month subscription made me heavy-hearted and regretful, and reminded me of when I got behind on school work.  Not a good feeling.

The website of advocated the one-parent one language approach if possible. Great! Trevor can speak English to them and I Spanish all the time!  ACK! THE PRESSURE! No way. Voluntary stress is not my hobby of picking up. You see, I need to ignore my little, nagging inner voice about only speaking Spanish when I answer my kid’s life questions, explain to them why we don’t steal or that we need to respect personal space, how long people live, etc.  Speaking Spanish to people who clearly understand English much better seems so artificial especially when I’m trying to create loving, connecting moments with my kids like when they ask why someone shot Martin Luther King, Jr. I just need to speak English then.

It’s a process not a race.  Daily I release anxiousness, guilt and stress about the pace of progress for all of us.  What’s the use of feeling those? They are not motivating, but debilitating.  And make me a worse mother.  This is not just a language journey but a life journey as well.


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1 Response to The pressures and realities of raising bilingual kids

  1. Jean T. says:

    You should have this conversation with my son-in-law and his mom someday. I’m sure she went through the same thing raising her two boys in the US. I’m pretty sure they spoke a lot of German at home growing up in Oregon and Wisconsin because Tom is very bilingual still. The boys sound like native Americans now. Their parents are perfectly fluent in English but retain slight but recognizable accents.

    So, I’d say relax and go with the flow. Your Spanish will grow while you live there, and you may even pick up more from your kids. Viva Spanglish!

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