When my daughter was two years old, she dreamed in Spanish. I knew this because I heard her crying out “No!” But she didn’t pronounce it like an English any with the long, hard O sound, she pronounced it like a Spanish no, shorter and accented. This was astonishing to me, that my baby could dream in a language I didn’t even speak.
Raising my children bilingual was an easy decision, but also one of the most difficult things I did as a young parent. I am an American of European descent and look like the kind of white suburban mom that people think of as mainstream. My husband is a first-generation American. His parents came to the United States from Argentina a few years before he was born. He was raised, like many children of immigrants are, with an eye toward assimilation. His home was English first, though he learned Spanish speaking with his abuelos and tios. He was proficient in Spanish, fluent even, but never truly comfortable with it.
As a couple, we embraced his Argentine roots, recognizing how special his family’s life experience was and what a rich culture and heritage they brought with them to America. I loved learning about life in Buenos Aires. We devoured the foods of Argentina, even importing Dulce de Leche for our wedding cake. And my husband taught me that if ever I was asked whom I supported, my answer must be “soy de Boca,” meaning I must forever claim Boca Juniors as my home soccer team (this only goes so far, because I will always be a Cubs fan first, but that’s a different story).
I studied French in school, not Spanish, so I struggled to participate in conversations with his family; they were Spanish-only and my ear for French only took me so far. I made many half-hearted attempts to learn Spanish, yet never truly applied myself. But I appreciated that two languages were much better than one and I wanted our children to have the same advantages that my husband did: attaining fluency in two languages and narrowing the gaps between our English speaking world and the large Spanish speaking one. I wanted my children to embrace their Argentine roots and see themselves as being part of that rich culture and heritage.
So when we started our family, we committed to raising bilingual children. We decided they would hear only Spanish at home and learn English everywhere else. As a non-Spanish speaker, this was incredibly difficult for me. I had to learn Spanish at the same time as the children did and always stay a bit ahead. We hired a nanny who was Polish and spoke two languages —Polish and Spanish. Because she spoke no English, my husband was responsible for communication with her until my basic Spanish caught up.
We tried to build a Spanish language children’s library for our kids to support their bilingualism, but it was difficult at that time. It was almost impossible to access Spanish language versions of American stories, but then we discovered the Spanish language nursery rhymes and songs from other countries. My children were raised on Los Pollitos and Pin Pon. These weren’t songs or stories I knew, but I learned that they were beloved in the Spanish-speaking world, and I grew to love them too.
As my bilingual children grew older, it became harder and harder for me to keep up. My Spanish didn’t develop as quickly as theirs (that part where they tell you little kids absorb language like a sponge is true!). It was more difficult for my older brain to learn another language and sometimes, to be honest, I didn’t try hard enough.
Raising bilingual children made me feel at times that I was on the sidelines, not able to fully understand the dinner table conversation, not able to really understand what our everyone in my house was saying. There were times when raising them in another language was isolating. It made them feel more separate from me. It can be hard enough to understand what your kids need when they struggle to communicate in the same language, imagine how difficult it is when they speak a different one.
That said, I don’t regret any of it.
My bilingual children are now grown and I am immensely proud that they are fluent Spanish speakers. Both of them have jobs in which they speak Spanish. I believe bilingualism wired their brain for learning, empathy and curiosity. In some respects, they have more of a Hispanic identity than my husband does. They see themselves as Argentine-American, which makes us both so happy. Embracing their heritage makes them more, not less.
And while I still struggle with my Spanish (they are sweetly patient with their mom), they can have a conversation with any native speaker and keep up.
Speaking two languages is truly a gift. It wasn’t easy for me, but raising bilingual children was one of the best decisions we made.