Teaching My Kid to Be Bilingual Like Me Was No Easy Feat

One mom turned to an expert to help her navigate the process of teaching her daughter Spanish—and the cultural expectations that come with bilingual parenting.

Latina mom and daughter dancing

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I don't recall exactly when I started thinking about the kind of parent I wanted to be. I'm sure we all make mental lists that include things like the eating habits we want our children to have, the kind of education we want to offer them, the types of activities we want them to be involved in. Well, my list also included a very specific goal: raising my child to be bilingual. A very important objective for a young mom who had her own struggles in picking up Spanish. 

But the task of teaching my daughter how to speak both English and Spanish fluently proved very difficult for me. And as it slowly became more and more apparent that I was failing at this, shame settled over me. I was raising a "yo no sabo" kid. And I wasn’t quite sure how to change that. So I went to an expert for help. Here’s what I learned.

It Takes a Lot of Planning

"When parents themselves speak multiple languages or live in bilingual communities, there is an assumption that raising bilingual kids will be a given, seamless, even easy," says Diandra Morse, licensed clinical social worker and founder of Bilingual Playdate. "In my experience, the main barrier parents face when teaching their child how to speak more than one language is the parent's preconceived expectations of how the learning should go or what it will take for their kids to pick up an additional language."

That takes us back to that list I was talking about. The one filled with my parenting intentions, which under the “raising them bilingual” sub-header had several bullet points listing things like playing language-learning videos to supplement what I would teach, signing her up for weekend Spanish classes, and other lofty goals. 

When I shared that list with Morse, she distilled the idea perfectly. “There is a level of work and investment—mental, time, social, emotional, financial—that perhaps doesn't feel as clear or real to parents until they are in the throes of bilingual parenting,” she explains. “At that point, parents find themselves struggling with how intentional and planful they need to be to be able to keep up with their child's bilingualism on top of all their parenting obligations.” 

This is exactly what it felt like to me. There was nothing seamless about navigating more than one language with my child. When she was a baby, I’d sit with her while we watched Little Pim Spanish for Kids, thinking she’d absorb the instruction the way children absorb school lessons. Afterward, we’d move on to other things and there would be no follow through on my part.

When we think about school instruction, those of us who aren’t educators sometimes fail to recognize how much planning goes into what our children are taught. Students aren’t exposed to content without the necessary prerequisite lessons. And once a topic is taught, there is follow through at school with the next lesson that builds upon what was previously learned. But I didn’t think of it this way. Sitting with my child to watch those videos in the hopes that she would sponge it up was a weak plan. And having a mental list of great ideas formed from equally great intentions meant nothing if I wasn’t prepared for the time management portion of the investment that Morse referred to. For all the tactics I had listed, I never made the time to sign my daughter up for Spanish classes. It’s one of the most slippery concepts known to man: time. There never seemed to be enough of it and in the blink of an eye, I lost it. As Morse suggested, I had no idea just how purposeful I needed to be if I wanted my daughter to be multilingual. 

Navigating Expectations—Both Ours and Others—Is Important

One of the harder things to deal with was the level of parent-shaming that I experienced. I've lost count how many times I've been asked, usually by a native Spanish speaker, if my daughter speaks both languages—only for the follow up reaction to be a scolding or look of disappointment when I admit that she does not. Morse, whose organization supports parents in navigating the invisible challenges of raising bilingual kids, adds, "From my discussions with parents, it appears that guilt and shame are constantly present in their journey.” 

These feelings are especially present in their interactions with the larger American society, which sends the persistent message of "this is America; your child should speak English."

It can also be stressful if our own family members hold expectations for the younger generation's bilingualism. I recall when my daughter was about 3 or 4 years old and I took her to meet an uncle of mine for the first time. There was pride in my posture and smile as I held her little hand in mine when I introduced her to him. But not even a few minutes into the greeting came the question I had been dreading: “Does she speak Spanish?” My chest deflated and my ears grew warm as I confessed that she did not. With arms crossed and a sharp tone, my uncle told me that I’d be failing my daughter if I didn’t take her bilingualism more seriously. No one, especially not a new parent, wants to hear that they might possibly fail their child. That interaction sliced right through the pride I’d carried, leaving me in doubt of where my priorities lay.

Morse says it’s easy to feel defeated under the weight of such expectations. But we have to learn to set reasonable expectations for ourselves. “We need to normalize how hard it is to raise bilingual kids in a predominantly monolingual society and educational system,” she says. “We need to connect families to professionals who specialize in family language preservation and childhood bilingualism for best practice and research-based information so that these families can make informed decisions.”

Morse offers a few tips that can help families navigating this tough multi-lingual terrain:

  • Make clear language goals for your family. The more clear your goals are, the more likely your family will be able to follow and stick to a routine.
  • Be wary of advice that implies things like “bilingualism causes speech delays.” Not only is it an inaccurate belief, it communicates a negative view about speaking multiple languages.
  • Reject advice that says there’s only one way to raise bilingual children, or that One Parent One Language (OPOL) is the best strategy—that’s an approach in which each parent commits to speaking only one of the two languages to the child. While this strategy can be successful, it’s not considered the most effective even though it is commonly used.

Although many parents may seek advice from speech therapists or their child’s pediatrician, my recommendation is for parents to also seek out support from language preservation professionals like Kaila Diaz of Bilingüitos or Rebeca Imberg of Bilikids who are both experts in the field of sociolinguistics and have studied bilingual language acquisition. While pediatricians and speech therapists are trusted specialists, they may not be the best source for the kind of tailored consultation that parents who want to raise bilingual children would need. 

Let Your Kids Lead

So where did the parent-shaming I received from family and strangers alike lead me? I’ll admit it: I threw in the towel and accepted my failure. I understood the benefits of speaking more than one language, especially with Spanish being one of them. It has played an incredibly important role in my school and work career. I hated myself for knowing that I would not be affording my child those same opportunities—because that's our job, right? To give our kids more opportunities than we had.

But I felt like a failure. I wasn't aware of professional services like Morse's when my daughter was a baby, and I felt very defeated by my inability to accomplish something that so many people seemed to have expected me to do with ease. What I neglected to recognize was that in the vast majority of the cases where parents were having an easier time teaching their kids Spanish at home, those parents were native Spanish speakers whose first and more common language was Spanish. That wasn’t the case for me, having been born and raised in the states to parents that spoke both English and Spanish. I would have benefited from the support offered by organizations like Bilingual Playdate, which aims to validate concerns like mine. If conversations around the challenge to teach our children more than one language were more commonplace, then what happened this year wouldn't have come as such a surprise to me. Turns out, my kiddo had been paying attention all along and understood more Spanish than I had thought.

I realized this year that I had in fact made some great decisions on this linguistic front and it may have something to do with a takeaway that Morse has for parents in this struggle: "Connection is the heart of bilingualism." 

My daughter’s in middle school now, and she chose Spanish as her foreign language class. So I thought, “Well, maybe she'll pick up a thing or two.” But to my relief and elation, my daughter is doing exceptionally well. She even downloaded a language learning app onto her phone, and I've quietly observed (and by quietly observe, I mean lurked in corners) her breezing through the lessons with aplomb.

Of course, I couldn't just sit back and watch. I had to ask her how she was doing this? How was it coming so easy to her? Her answer: I'm always listening to you and the family. So all those family barbecues with the Latin music blasting, conversations that flowed between English and Spanish fluidly, all gave her a sense of connection to the culture. All this time, unbeknownst to me, she was picking up the language in the margins of her childhood.

Parents in this multilingual struggle, I leave you with this: Your kids are paying attention. Play the music from your ancestral countries, have your kids around conversations at family gatherings, talk to them about their cultures and family history. 

For added support, you can look into resources like Bilingual Playdate that not only recognize multilingual concerns as valid, but put in the effort to offer multilingual communities a place to turn to for help. Add all these separate measures up, and you too may find yourself surprised that your child is growing up multilingual.

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