It is 3p on a steamy Puerto Rican afternoon. Sweat drips. My güayavera sticks. We’ve traveled from San Francisco to a small chapel on Calle Loiza. Inside, we celebrate my late grandmother’s legacy. Crying eyes turn to my young children as they approach the podium to speak. Confidently, they each recite Spanish hymns.
As family and friends embrace my dad after the service, they say to him, “And your grandchildren… and their beautiful Spanish?!” He beams with pride at his mother’s funeral.
My English-speaking wife and I have raised 3 bilingual children while living here in the States. We prioritized raising bilingual children since it had led each of us to better pay, to new friendships, to new experiences, to world travel, to new language acquisition. So when our first of three was born, we began our Spanish childrearing journey.
Raising bilingual kids in the US requires you constantly swim against the current. Suspicious looks follow in certain places. Strangers — even my parents — question, “How will they learn English?” Purely speaking English particularly helps recent immigrant families blend in.
Consequently a family’s native language tends to disappear by the second generation. Research proves it’s almost nonexistent by the third generation. My friends agree. “Even though my daughter understands perfect Korean, she tests me by responding in English.” Or I hear, “My teenager doesn’t think it’s cool to speak in Spanish.”
Our persistence swim upstream has paid off. The children flip from English to Spanish without regard. They have an ear for other languages. They resolve problems in creative, non-linear manners. As nimbler, more dynamic thinkers they’ll possess an advantage. We’ve created a continuous source of family pride to dip into when life seems in tatters.
Here’s what I’ve learned from my experience.
First, children learn a language to connect with us.
An infant learns to speak a language because she wants to connect with a caregiver. Naturally, an infant’s first language is her mother’s tongue. A child’s language formation ability disappears around age 10, as the brain gradually prunes unused neurons. After 10 we must study and practice language instead.
To nurture a child’s natural ability to learn a second language, you need to immerse her. Research suggests at least 30 hours per week in relationships based in that language.
To spend at least 30 hours per week in relationships based in Spanish we speak to our children in Spanish. We introduced and nurtured relationships with Spanish-speaking nannies, teachers and local grocers. We enrolled our children in schools that promoted children speak Spanish. We set up play dates with children who spoke Spanish. However, we did not count time watching television towards the 30 hours because you can’t have a relationship with a television or iPad.
Second, children need to identify as someone that speaks another language.
Our children have wondered why we speak Spanish in an English-speaking country.
To ease their uncertainty, we help them identify as proud Spanish speakers. Latin food, music and drink surround laughter and play. Regular visits to family in Puerto Rico take priority. J. Lo, Jane the Virgin, and Latin World Cup national teams win influence. Spanish media and TV consumed enrich our older children’s vocabulary and celebrate slang and fashion trends.
Celebrating Latin slang, fashion and culture breed self-confidence and ease uncertainty. Our children see success also comes in Spanish flavors. While none identify themselves as Latinx, our kids comfortably identify themselves as bi-lingual.
Third, a child should consistently hear rich, colorful language.
As primary English speakers living in the US, we don’t know the Spanish word for every thing. Often times, we’d prefer to say ‘fruit’ instead of ‘banana’, ‘mango’, or ‘apple’. We’d prefer to mix in English when that word just escapes us. However, studies show the more specific the word, the richer the language and reasoning a child develops.
To use rich, colorful language, we rely on the wordReference mobile app to look up words like ‘moth’ or ‘catacombs’. Looking up the word stalls conversation. However, persistently using rich language broadens their lexicon. It cements bilingualism is important — particularly during the elementary years when non-English speakers desperately drop their mother tongue to fit in.
At the middle school level it helps to encourage reading. Extended reading enhances sentence structure and vocabulary. A favorite family past time of ours is reading chapter books like our current third reading of Pinocchio. Eventually, children will only want to read in English. “Reading Harry Potter in Spanish is so boring.” Still, studies recommend encouraging children to continue reading in that second language to enrich the language.
And fourth, children should not learn to conceal the second language in front of others.
Speaking to your child at home in one language and in English in front of others suggests to children that the second language is shameful. It is best to hide it. Switching to English to explain more complicated topics teaches to reserve English for juicier, more interesting topics.
Consequently, we speak Spanish everywhere. As if a method actor, I never speak English with my children — even when speaking in front of non-English speakers. My English-speaking wife also primarily speaks Spanish to them. Her consistent efforts bring on headaches after a long workday. It leads strangers into a birthplace guessing game.
This consistency brings its challenges. Non-Spanish speakers, like my wife’s family, have felt disrespect, even exclusion from a Monday-night family dinner. When non-Spanish speakers join conversation, I’ve learned to first speak in Spanish and then translate everything.
Despite our efforts, I fully expect that as our kids grow their Spanish will stunt. Spanish thoughts and dreams will slip into English. English-based friendships will supersede. They’ll gorge on English language media and literacy.
Knowing they are active, flexible problem solvers that relate well to others solaces me. They built a vault housing that language. A vault to access the career opportunities, new friendships, and worldly experiences a second language brings. A source of pride my children tap into during life’s inevitable droughts.