“Good for you for speaking Spanish to your kids!” she yelled from about 10 feet away.
She told me she wished that her kids had taught her grandkids Spanish but that they were “lazy”. I could sense she was hurt that she couldn’t communicate with her grandkids but I don’t think “lazy” is the reason Spanish speakers don’t pass their skills to their kids.
I take my kids to a small indoor play place. The atmosphere is pretty intimate where we gather to eat. I tend to forget that I ONLY speak Spanish to my kids everywhere I go but that I can switch gears right away as if it was the same language to a non-spanish speaking person. My 3.5 year old talks to me in Spanish (but talks English with everyone else) and my 1 year old son only understands it at the moment. It’s strange I know. So let me explain.
My parents brought me to the US as an native Spanish speaker at 3 years old. I had NEVER heard English spoken in my life before that moment. When I started pre-k I picked it up right away. Now I’m fluent in both. I understand, speak, write, and read both English and Spanish.
So, we concluded that if we ever had kids, they’d pick up English no matter what, which meant we had to focus on ONLY speaking Spanish.
When I became pregnant my husband and I wanted our kid to learn Spanish, mainly so that she could communicate with her grandparents. We also live in SoCal so it’s a huge advantage to be bilingual.
But there was a problem. We were so used to talking to each other in English that it had become weird and difficult to switch gears. We tried to speak it more often, but we would just end up speaking English again. In fact we had to consciously decide to speak it regardless of how difficult or awkward it was to communicate with each other. In other words, we committed to this process long before our daughter was born because we knew it would take time. It wasn’t easy or comfortable to make this decision come to life but we knew what we had to do.
We made a few ground rules to help with the transition. We said that we would ONLY speak Spanish in our home and with our daughter. And we managed to do it. It wasn’t weird or awkward once she was born because we had already put in the practice to make it feel comfortable.
Now that my daughter is 3.5 and I have a 1 year old son, the rules are still the same. We only speak Spanish at home. If she talks to me in English I kindly ask her to speak Spanish. If she catches us speaking English she immediately tells us to speak Spanish. It’s actually a game in our home to catch someone speaking the wrong language 😲
However, she’s now picking up English from tv shows, church, and other social settings. I find that she enjoys practicing specific phrases. Instead of discouraging this because of our rule, I just restate what she said in Spanish to be sure she’s not just speaking English because she doesn’t know how to do it in Spanish. So it goes something like this:
- Emma: ” Where does cheese come from?”
- Me: Emma, are you asking me “De donde viene el queso?”
- Emma: Si, de donde viene el queso?
- Me: Ah, ya te entendi. El queso viene de….( I answer her question in Spanish AFTER she repeats my question)
If necessary, I also correct the English version before translating.
I know it seems like a lot of work but this is what we’ve done and are doing now. We struggle communicating basic sentences sometimes so we have to look it up. We don’t know all the words in Spanish so we google them. But I love how it’s become a thing we just do and not a thing that feels like an extra, if you know what I mean.
Bringing it back to the beginning, it’s always nice to hear someone compliment me for speaking Spanish to my kids. It’s like they understand where I’m coming from. In fact I’ve had many people ask me how I do it which is why I’m writing this blog.
Honestly, it requires a decision, the right support, and knowing the why for the commitment. It’s also very helpful to have a safe place to practice without feeling judged. The practice has to happen in a fun way too, not like an ” I need to do this or else” mentality. Last but not least, all families have different priorities and ours happens to make this one a high one. It’s ok if you have different priorities. That’s just how life is. You’re not lazy because grandma says so. So please don’t ever feel like you’ve failed as a parent because you didn’t pass down your learned or native tongue.
Mama, you’re doing your best and that’s what matters.