5 Tips on Confidently Raising a Bilingual Kid in a Non-Spanish Speaking Community
Latina mothers Ana Suda and Mimi Hernandez were chatting in Spanish while buying groceries at a Town Pump in Havre, Montana back in May 2018 when a U.S. Border Patrol agent detained them for 40 minutes. Why? In the video one of the women took, the agent says it's because they were "speaking Spanish, which is very unheard of up here."
The women say their lives in the small town quickly became difficult after the humiliating incident: Suda says her young daughter is now afraid to speak Spanish. Far from helping the families feel more welcome, their fellow townspeople "harassed" them. It got so bad that the two women had to move their families out of Havre.
Should those of us who are trying to raise our kids to speak Spanish (or another language) in largely English-speaking areas worry about what might happen if a law enforcement or immigration officer overhears?
It might feel impossible not to worry. I live in Alaska, where hardly anyone speaks Spanish. My one Latina friend and I awkwardly greet each other in Spanish at church, surrounded by a crowd of English speakers who curiously look on.
When I speak to my toddler in Spanish at library storytime, I brace myself for the stares. But it's worth every uncomfortable moment to hear my son regularly—and with a perfect Mexican-Cuban accent—say parque (park), ¿qué? (what?), and ¡se cayó! (he fell!) along with his English words and phrases.
I've learned how to become more comfortable speaking Spanish to my kid despite living far from a Spanish-speaking community. Here's my advice to other Latina moms.
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Know That It's Your Right
You might feel strange and out of place when you speak Spanish to your kids in public, but doing so sends the strong message that your heritage has a place in the world outside your home. Still, some people might tell you that this is America and we speak English.
But we don't have to, says David Reischer, Esq., immigration attorney and CEO of LegalAdvice.com, because "The United States has no official language."
The Latina mothers in Montana did a smart thing when they recorded the Border Patrol agent's interrogation. They challenged him, asking if it was illegal to speak Spanish in Montana; it's not, of course, and the courageous women knew it. "There is no legal basis to demand that a person speak English in public," says Reischer.
If you are unconstitutionally detained for speaking Spanish, contact your local American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) affiliate for help.
Bilingualism Benefits Your Kid
If other parents are curious about why you're speaking Spanish, let them know the positives of speaking more than one language. "Raising a bilingual child enhances a child's language development and cognition," says Florencia Segura, M.D., FAAP, a practicing bilingual pediatrician at Einstein Pediatrics in Virginia. Research shows bilingualism helps children perform better in school and allows them to become better communicators.
Another big plus? "Bilingualism also shows children to respect other cultures and instills the value of different traditions," adds Dr. Segura. And learning to value different cultures is crucial for our kids and is something we need now more than ever.
Share Your Heritage With Mom Friends
Because there are so few Latinas in Alaska, most of my mom friends don't know much about Latin American culture. I even see them on Facebook sharing petitions and liking articles that argue for strict immigration laws. I'm quick to educate them on my family's heavily immigrant history whenever we're gathered together over cups of tea and cookies. I just toss it into the conversation like it's no big deal, even though I'm often sweating. They usually respond with genuine, well-meant curiosity, opening a door for me to share my culture with them.
Start a Spanish-Language Storytime
My friends expressed interest in a Spanish-language storytime after one of our long chats about family history. They want me to bring picture books in Spanish and host a storytime with all our kids. How wonderful would it be for my son's friends to hear Spanish from me, a heritage speaker, and not see it as just a foreign language?
While it might feel strange to have people fawn over you and your kids' bilingualism, embracing the attention can help your kids feel confident around their friends, says Maya Valencia Goodall, M.A., M. Ed., educator, English-language learner (ELL) curriculum developer, and Rosetta Stone's senior director of EL learning. "Make it a positive experience and an accomplishment of which they can be proud," says Goodall. "When kids are excited about their ability to speak another language, it can inspire their peers to want to do the same."
Fill Your Home With Spanish Things
Even though my Cuban-born dad never spoke English to me growing up, I always found Spanish slightly more difficult than English. I loved to read books in English, but not so much in Spanish. Same with movies.
The language still surrounded me, though, especially in my early years when I lived near the California-Mexico border. My son lives thousands of miles from any Spanish-speaking country, so I've made it a point to fill his life with Spanish via audiobooks, picture books, movies, and shows. We also love the Duolingo Spanish podcast; each episode features a true story about Latino people.
If you're lucky enough to have Latino friends in town, invite them over for Spanish-speaking playdates. During the pandemic, you can do this outdoors while 6 feet apart and wearing masks. It'll fill a Spanish-shaped hole in all of your souls.