I Didn't Know English Well When I Moved to the US—and It Was Little Gestures From Others That Made All The Difference

When I arrived in the United States from Argentina with my family a few years ago, adjusting to a new culture was hard. Here's what my journey in a new place without knowing the language fluently has been like.

Julia Tortoriello daughters husband portrait
Photo: Courtesy of Julia Tortoriello

Eight years ago, I arrived in the United states from Argentina with my husband and our daughters, Violeta and Nina, then ages 3 and 1. All of us, in a sense, were born again that day. I had to learn a language all over again. My husband and I had to figure out the education and health-care systems. His job brought us to this country, but being parents threw us into the culture.

I didn't understand a single word during Violeta's first parent-teacher conference. I recorded the whole meeting with my phone and later listened to the audio with an English teacher who I hired for myself. To translate the school's day-to-day communications, I created my own network of bilingual neighborhood parents who could help me. They're still my best friends.

I volunteered to go on as many field trips as I could as a way to be present for my kids, and the teachers gave me duties that didn't tax my speaking skills. I read to the girls—and still do—so that they love books in both English and Spanish. Homework remains tough for me to help with. But though I might not be able to suggest words for them to use, I can impress upon them the universal values of working hard, trying their best, and not giving up. They see me living those values as well.

If there's a parent from another country in your child's school, the kindest thing you can do is give them a smile (or a wave, in these times). Make them feel comfortable and seen. My world changed the day a fellow school parent invited me to a yoga class, where I met many more moms. Never underestimate how much you can help just by including someone.

Julia Tortoriello lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. She is deputy editor of Parents Latina.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's November 2020 issue as "How I Do It… Raising Kids in the U.S. While Still Learning the Language." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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