Parental Doubts: Raising Bilingual Kids

March 23, 2016

Before parents are actually parents, there are certain certainties that we know. Some parents know their kids will be vegetarian because of their own lifestyle. Some parents know that their kids will go to private school. Me? I knew that I was going to raise bilingual kids. Born to Cuban parents and having been bilingual myself, there were a number of good reasons. There were personal reasons like wanting my kids to speak to our relatives in their native language. There were scientific reasons that being bilingual makes you smarter and quicker at certain tasks. There were adjustment reasons like research showing that switching between languages so often “requires keeping track of changes” so bilinguals tend to navigate their environment with more ease. It was always a yes for me; there was never a doubt.* (I don’t think it was a coincidence that I married an American guy who – among other things – valued second languages so much that he studied Spanish in Guatemala for nine months.)

raising bilingual kids

However, around the time Rafaella became playground age I started to doubt my decision. Though we were living in a Spanish speaking country, the school playground is in an English speaking school and most of the kids that played there were kids of our English-speaking expat friends. Our daughter kept to herself a lot. She observed. She played at the slide when other kids were playing on the swings and she played on the swings when others played in the sand. She, did however, feel comfortable around the nannies, the adults, the Spanish-speakers.

I started to doubt my decision and felt like I had made a bad choice speaking to her in Spanish. Teaching her two languages was supposed to have broadened her scope but was it narrowing her relationships. Was Spanish stopping her from making friends? It didn’t help that she was an awkward age – younger than one group and older than another – but regardless, I couldn’t help but feel like my daughter was an outcast and that maybe that was my fault. I knew all of the research, all of the aforementioned reasons of how being bilingual was a good thing, but when it comes to your kid, studies and data could bite it. Emotions reigned supreme.

bilingual kids

I did what most parents probably do; I encouraged her to play with other kids. I’d walk her over and start playing and when I’d turn around she was gone. On her own. Again. I’d encourage her to go and play with the other kids but she was more content doing her own thing or sticking nearby. Then one day, a funny thing happened.

A friend and her son, James, were at the playground. A red-headed, spit-fire, James was slightly older than Rafa and a first language English speaker that had now lived in the Dominican Republic for over a year. In other words, he was a linguistic sponge. It was late afternoon so most of the other kids had gone home and with the adults talking, our kids started to play together. Inevitably, they had to communicate with each other. James, knowing that Rafa spoke Spanish, used the Spanish in his arsenal to communicate with her. His mom gushed, “Oh, how sweet. He’s talking to her in Spanish.” As is often said about life, I guess kids, too, always find a way. Later, James’ mom would tell me how much she liked when they played together because he would choose to talk to her in Spanish.

As time passed, I learned that our daughter’s playground lone-wolf modus operandi was more about personality and age than it was about language; I just had to give it time. I had to give her time. Her bilingualism flourished. She knows which people to speak to in Spanish and which to address in English. She navigates between the two languages with the ease of a pro-surfer cutting between waves. She runs in two different circles and can keep up in both. She teaches me new words in Spanish and makes up her own in English and combines both to create new ideas.

Recently, on the way to the beach, she spoke her first Spanglish sentence – a modern fusion of both languages that some have suggested is a language in it of itself – and she nailed it.

Apparently she’s not bilingual after all. She’s trilingual.

What doubts did you / do you have as a parent?

P.S. That relentless bitch, mommy guilt and terrible ideas that teach you things.

Bottle Imagewine glass


Of course, moving to the Dominican Republic helped. Although most of our friends here are expats from English speaking countries, living in a Spanish speaking country, naturally supports and enforces speaking Spanish and that matters because since Husband and I, both first language English speakers, only speak to our kids in Spanish but we speak to each other in English I know that they;ll learn English and, one day, it will probably take over. I know in the States I would have also been as determined, but I can’t say with certainty that my kids would be as fluent as they are now.


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