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What My Parents Taught Me About Raising Bilingual Kids

When I began my journey raising bilingual kids, I thought it would be easy to stay in “Spanish mode.” After all, my native Spanish-speaking parents had raised us to be fluent Spanish speakers, while they became fluent in English. But I quickly discovered just what a challenge it can be.

Back when my parents immigrated to the United States, their goal was to learn English as quickly as possible. They began their journey in Miami, which made the transition a little easier for them, since the city is home to so many Spanish speakers. But they knew they would have more opportunities if they spoke the majority language, and that it would help them assimilate to a new country and culture.

After 40 years in this country, they’re certainly fluent in English. In fact, I sometimes think it comes easier at times because it’s the language they hear every day. So why was I so surprised when my parents would only respond to my children in English?!

My parents are proud that they raised bilingual children, but I don’t think they really thought about it. It’s just what came naturally. They’re both native Spanish speakers, and it’s the language they use to communicate. By default, we also learned to speak Spanish.

So I've recognized that what I’m been doing is different. I married a monolingual and I’m purposely raising bilingual kids. And while Spanish is my native language, it’s not the language I speak best; I especially struggle with writing. I have to work hard every day to stay in "Spanish mode,” and although I sometimes respond to my kids in English, I always go back to Spanish, and I make sure it’s the language they hear me speak the majority of the time.

My parents are proud of me for raising bilingual kids. They love that they can speak to their grandchildren in Spanish. So why do they keep using English with them? (And they’re not the only ones. My cousins, aunts, uncles, siblings, and other native Spanish speakers do it, too, even while they know my kids can understand them in either language.)

What I’ve come to understand is that it's not their fault. In fact, it's my kids that are triggering their English.

Bilingual speakers are conditioned to respond in whatever language they’re spoken to. They’re able to switch back and forth between languages without thinking, and they readily adapt to the triggers in their environment. Because my kids are most comfortable in English, if they know the person they’re speaking to speaks and understands it, that’s the language they’ll use, which then naturally triggers an English reply. Only a person intent on using one language over another can override that trigger.

Before I recognized what was going on, I used to get really upset at my parents. Raising bilingual kids is hard enough in an English-dominant environment, and I can use all the help I can get. But it’s my challenge, not theirs. The best I can do is model interaction and hope they follow suit – and talk to them about how helpful and important it would be to me if they, too, could stay in Spanish mode.

I've also learned to rely on other passionate moms and dads raising bilingual kids, who are able to ignore the dominant language triggers. If you're facing the same challenges I have, I encourage you to find your bilingual tribe. (If you’re in Austin, you can follow mymamalingua and check out ATX Meetup: Spanish with Your Kids.)

I’m grateful to my wonderful parents who have led me to feel proud of my language abilities, my culture and my roots, and given me a skill that opens up options and opportunities. Through my commitment to raising my kids bilingual, I hope to do the same for them.

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