Parenting Bilingual Niños When You’re Not Fluent

Parenting Bilingual Niños

Being the parent of a bilingual child isn’t always easy…especially when you’re not fluent. I’ve been teaching my daughter Spanish since birth…a few words here and there, never speaking in full conversations because I have absolutely no idea what a fluent Spanish speaking mother would say to her child.  I wish I was that lucky!  I hear little kids running around at church, parents praising and scolding and I happily do my best to absorb it all.  I remember my husband was teaching these little kinders when we lived in Michigan.  They were so adorable and so feisty.  He used to tell me stories and we would laugh about all the cute, but outlandish things they would say and were always amazed by how smart such little ones can be.  I was in awe of the bilingual kids especially, because they could shift back and forth effortlessly to Spanish with their friends, then English with their teachers. Of course, they had no idea…for them it was normal, but to me it was both miraculous and endearing.  I suppose that being the mother of a bicultural child, raised entre dos fronteras, causes you to see all other bicultural and bilingual children as being yours to some degree.  I can’t help but feel a slight tug on my heart strings, especially for a child who’s mother lengua es español.  I see my daughter in every child and especially in the eyes of those who look and sound like her. I think that all mothers function this way to some degree.  If a child is in danger or needs help, we rush in without even a second thought.  We mothers are like Superwoman.  You gotta give us that…we’re most definitely amazing!

I guess that’s why raising a child bilingual can be so difficult at times.  While it is an amazing gift for our children, we can sometimes be left feeling inadequate about our lack of language skills…knowing that we don’t quite measure up can sometimes become a source of disappointment. Some would criticize or say that mothers who aren’t fluent shouldn’t even bother, but of course I have to disagree.  I always disagree when people say such ridiculous things.  Moms, while you may not be fluent…your child still can be! Ok, perhaps my daughter is not fluent yet, but hope is not lost.  I just take it one step at a time.  Right now, my daughter’s favorite Spanish words are papi and papa.  =)  Papi translates to daddy, while papa means potato.  Yeah…that’s funny isn’t it?  These are two words that she says every day and while it may be very little to some, it means the world to me and my husband.  I can’t tell you how overjoyed my husband is just having our daughter run to him after he returns home from work screeching “Papi, papi!!!”  It’s simply heartwarming.  On the other hand, papas in our house translates to traditional potatoes while papitas is of course, reserved for fries and potato chips.  My daughter acknowledges many other Spanish words, but because her father and I are not fluent, we always return to our dominant language, English.

That brings me to another point.  My husband, who considers himself both Mexican and Tejano (Texan), grew up in a home where Spanish was forbidden. Yeah, sad but true and it’s not that uncommon in many bicultural American families.  We all tend to assimilate to some degree, in order to fit in with a society that is not often accepting of those who are different.  Regardless, my point is that my husband has felt all these years as if a piece of his heart has been missing.  He never got to hold a full Spanish conversation with his abuelo before he passed on, was forced out of conversations by more fluent speakers and (the biggest heartache of all) I know he feels somewhat defeated by the fact that he is unable to lead his own familia in Spanish.  Perhaps he thinks that he is no better than his father, who forbade Spanish.

Maybe some individuals would blame him for not finding a way to learn the language by now, but for me…I see a very passionate man who’s yearning to find himself and who sees Spanish language as being a very big part of his own personal identity. A man who has lived between two borders, been slapped by both and yet, still manages to love them both simultaneously. I marvel at all biculturals and bilinguals struggling to find their place…it’s not easy.  I can only wonder what will happen in our future.  Will my daughter eventually find her way to fluency?  Will we?  If not, will she be accepted?  How will she be received when she does finally become fluent?  Yeah, I could pretty much worry about all these things until I wear myself ragged.  There are so many haters out there…even family and friends can be harsh and unkind.  But, I think that what it all boils down to is that family is there for you no matter what, supporting you, unconditionally loving you, nurturing you.  I think I’ll keep on with my few words of Spanish, however small it may seem…and pray for a fluent future and a confident daughter who can turn her head at all the controversy and just be herself.

This post was originally published in January, 2011.


Facebook Comments


  • Me and the Mexican
    April 8, 2012 at 6:59 pm

    Awesome post Chantilly and I can totally relate!  Although my husband is fluent we struggle teaching our son.  I think the fact that we even try is saying a lot!  I like you, have no clue what Spanish speaking mothers say to their children.  When I worked with a good friend who is orginally from Colombia, I absorbed A LOT!  Now that we no longer speak to each other on a daily basis, I have lost a lot of what I was picking up from her.  It was awesome being able to listen to her talk to her kids in Spanish and listen to her complain about different things in Spanish.  We have to do what we can.  However small it may seem to us, it may make a huge difference in our child's future!  Love, love, loved this post!  It spoke  straight to me!  It was like you were reading my mind!  Cuidate!

    • biculturalmom
      April 9, 2012 at 1:43 am

       @Me and the Mexican Thanks Tara.  :)  I’ve been struggling since we’ve moved to South Dakota because we don’t have Spanish-speaking family and fewer fluent friends.  I feel like I’ve lost a lot of my Spanish and it’s terrible because it makes teaching Lily a huge challenge.  I bet it was tons of fun chatting with your friend from Colombia!  Keep working on it amiga!  We’re struggling with you too.  ;)

  • luckyfatima
    April 9, 2012 at 8:52 am

    Great post. I speak Urdu fairly well but still nowhere near to native speaker fluency, though I try to speak the language with my daughters. I felt a tug at my heart strings speaking Urdu to my babies when it sometimes felt awkward or unnatural. I just really wanted them to be bilingual. My husband speaks mostly in Urdu with them. When we lived in Dubai in a every South Asian environment (it's an Arab country but 65% of the people in the city are South Asian) my girls answered back in Urdu. But when we moved to the US and stayed with my parents in Texas for a full year, my girls stopped answering back in Urdu and I also spoke less Urdu with them because I didn't want to alienate my parents. Once when we still lived in Dubai I brought my eldest daughter to visit my parents in the US and she didn't speak English at all and my parents thought that was so weird…I knew she would get English eventually and become dominant in it so I didn't bother teaching her when she was a small. Anyhow, now my prediction became true and both my girls are totally dominant in English but they can understand Urdu. They only say a few select words in Urdu and can request things they want, but not much more. Maybe one day they will make the choice to improve, or we may spend a summer in Pakistan or something. We'll see. LOL I am also a fluent Spanish speaker and from Texas (though Anglo) and everyone always asks me if I am teaching my girls Spanish! I wish! Maybe some day…for now it is just Dora the Explorer but somehow we slip in a few words here and there like agua and moco. I know some tejano families like your husband's who have lost their Spanish…a sign of the racism and pressure to assimilate. Thank God nowadays it is easier to speak con orgullo but there is still a stigma for recent immigrant Mexican (non-tejano) 1st gen kids whose parents speak Spanish. It's all so complex. It is a huge privilege to be able to make the choice to pass on culture and language and not fear that kind of judgement for it.

  • EthanMom
    April 11, 2012 at 5:06 am

    Great post! I just got into your blog for the 1st time redirected by Autism Wonderland. This post broke my heart because it remained me those "gloriosos" days during my pregnancy when I was dreaming of having a perfect bilingual (Spanish/English) son. My husband & I (both Venezuelans) were planning to speak just Spanish @ home to make sure our little boy will become perfectly fluent in both languages. I was even planning to give him Spanish (Castellano) classes to make sure he will be able to read & write it perfectly. But all those dreams fell down when we realized our son has autism; struggling w/major speech delays. We decided that English would be the primary language on his life to make things easier for him.  At this point, my son has realized that there are 2 languages thank to Dora & Diego. Once in while he says: “Mama! English please” or “No Español, no Español” (when he noticed I’m getting frustrated). I get envy when I hear those little Hispanic kids switching between languages so easily. How cool it’d be if my son ends bilingual in the future, but @ this moment we still have a long way to go w/his speech delays… Awesome blog! Felicitaciones

    • biculturalmom
      April 13, 2012 at 5:00 pm

      I'm so glad you stopped by.  :)  I actually have a nephew with Autism and my husband and I have spoken Spanish with him.  Every time we come over, he still shouts "brinca, brinca" because he wants us to bounce him on our knee.  So adorable.
      I read a study somewhere that said that bilingual education can actually help children with Autism to communicate better.  I'll have to see if I can find it for you.
      I know what you mean though, it's very hard to raise our daughter bilingual, but having Autism can add more challenges, since children with Autism learn differently.  Fortunately, many have amazing memories and can recall more words than other kids their age.  :)
      Even if your son isn't perfectly bilingual, I'm sure Spanish words are all the more beautiful when he's spoken them.  I know I was proud of my daughter when she first started to roll her r's.  Don't worry, he'll get there…and I bet he'll surprise you.  ;)

  • crgonzalez
    April 13, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    Chantilly, I loved your post. It's refreshing to get a take on language assimilation from someone who has gone through similar experiences. I grew up with English-language as a dominant force, but whenever I was being scolded, out came the Spanish! I too felt deprived in not having been taught Spanish at home. I had to learn what I could at high school like everyone else.
    Here's an idea for you and your husband that could make Spanish a family affair: think about taking language lessons through Rosetta Stone or other online resource as a family. If everyone participates, it makes it easier for everyone to join in and reinforce learning. This means including the kids too. No matter what, thanks for your insightful blog. Keep it up. Buena suerte!

    • biculturalmom
      April 13, 2012 at 4:52 pm

       @crgonzalez Thanks so much for the suggestion!  Yes, I definitely want to get Rosetta Stone!  :)  I've been thinking about this for a while and I need to get on it.
      Thank you for sharing more about your experience.  It''s so interesting to hear how bilinguals were raised and in what instances each language was used.

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