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Raising Bilingual Kids in English and Spanish as a Non-Native Speaker

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Can you raise bilingual children as a non-native speaker?

Many people believe that parents should stick to their native language when speaking to their children. However, it is possible to raise bilingual kids as a non-native speaker. Multilingual parents who would like to pass more than one language onto their children are faced with decision of either seeking outside resources to do so, or to teach their children themselves.

There are many things to consider including your partner’s language, your family language goals, and more importantly, how comfortable you feel speaking that language.

Jamie  Agins Lincow is the mother of three bilingual children who speak English and Spanish. While she is a native English speaker herself, Jamie speaks with her children in Spanish, her non-native language. Here is her story:

Passing on Spanish, my non-native language

When I first had the chance to study Spanish in middle school, I immediately became enamored with the idea of dominating a second language and being able to connect with people from around the globe.  Studying Spanish unlocked a deep desire to travel, experience different customs and traditions, and converse in a foreign tongue.

Although this language is not part of my heritage or remotely part of my upbringing, I continued studying the foreign language in high school and beyond. Ultimately I gained fluency after living abroad in Madrid, and travelling extensively through Spain, and other Spanish-speaking countries.

Additionally, I have earned a Master’s Degree and a Ph.D. in Spanish Language and Literature, and I currently teach Spanish at the high-school and collegiate level.

Creating a bilingual home

When I’m with my students in the classroom, I’m teaching Spanish on an academic level, explaining verb conjugations, utilizing colloquial expressions, and practicing conversations. However, it is in my home, where my near-native fluency really takes flight.

After my initial exposure to Spanish in grade school, I decided that I would raise my future children in a bilingual home.  I knew how important it is to expose children at a young age, so I began speaking Spanish with my 3 kids right from birth.

Despite being a non-native speaker, I consider myself a Spanish enthusiast. My husband and I adopted the OPOL “one-parent-one-language” approach to create a bilingual environment in our home.

This type of implementation allowed for our children to learn Spanish through my input and English through my husband and other family members/ caregivers.  Since my husband does not speak Spanish, he began learning some words as well!

Learning to put my non-native language first

At first, creating a bilingual home seemed like an obtainable goal, but I was met with some unexpected challenges right from the start.  When the doctor handed me my newborn, my first instinct was to cuddle him, kiss him, and tell him how much I loved him, in English! The Spanish words did not flow naturally from my mouth when I spoke to my newborn. In fact, I had to remind myself a few times to use Spanish words rather than English ones when speaking to the baby.

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Some words were still foreign to me, such as rattle, blankie, diaper etc. These were not words I ever learned on a vocabulary list or utilized in my classroom.  I was finding myself looking up words in dictionaries and later forgetting to use them!

When I went to sing a lullaby to the baby or cuddle with him, I found myself reverting back to English.  I felt guilty about not upholding my promise to speak only in Spanish, but it felt foreign to me to express these types of emotions in a non-native tongue.

Saying “te quiero” does not have the same emotional equivalent for me as “I love you”. I soon recognized that my intimate dialogues would have to be expressed in English in order for them to feel genuine to me.

Overcoming my own self-consciousness

Another obstacle that I faced was my own self-consciousness of speaking a foreign language around others who did not speak Spanish and could not understand what I was saying.

When friends, family members, and visitors came over (or even when I was at a supermarket or store), I continued to use Spanish while speaking with the baby.  I made a conscious decision that I would speak to any adult in English, but continue to speak in Spanish with my baby.

At first, I felt very self-conscious that people would be judging my near native accent or my fluency level, but I quickly overcame those fears.   I was easily having multiple conversations simultaneously with two different people in two different languages: English with the adult in the room and Spanish with my baby.  However, I often could sense a feeling of frustration from the adult who could not understand what I was saying to the baby.

I fielded many questions asking for translations of my Spanish.  In addition, almost everyone questioned my rationale for trying to raise a baby in a language different than my own.  Most concerns were arising about the baby’s comprehension and if he would be confused while hearing two different languages.

Since I was the only one speaking to him in Spanish, how could we be sure he would be learning? 

In my heart (and from all of the research I had conducted on the subject), I knew that hearing two languages since birth could only enhance my baby’s cognition and comprehension; yet, I felt a sense of self-doubt after having to defend my decision time and again to different relatives and visitors.

My husband was my backbone during this struggle, and he constantly defended my decision and supported me wholeheartedly.  I am so thankful that I never gave in to the naysayers and continued to trust my instincts as an educator and also my newly developing motherly instincts.

A budding Spanish enthusiast

Eventually the naysayers were silenced as they could see a Spanish enthusiast emerging into his toddler years.  Even before he was speaking, my first son was identifying colors, animals, and ordinary objects in Spanish.  To everyone’s surprise, was following my commands in Spanish that he would perform seamlessly.

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By his second year, he began speaking in English and interjecting certain words in Spanish into his sentences.  I was amazed that he knew both words for most objects and would use the right terminology depending upon his interlocutor.  He would say to me, “Mommy I want más leche” and later would turn around and ask my husband for “more milk”.  He clearly was code-switching and gaining a sense of intuition, since he easily recognized people’s preference for one language over another.

Once I could demonstrate that my Spanish experiment was a success and my son was emerging as another Spanish enthusiast, I felt more confident to continue on with my course of creating a bilingual environment.

Our Secret Spanish Club

Today I have 3 sons (7, 5, and 2) and it’s like I have a secret club and Spanish is our private language.  It serves us extremely well when we are out in public, and I can effortlessly reprimand my children, remind them to say please and thank you, and tell them anything that I don’t want others around us to understand.

They respond to everything that I tell them, but at the moment they always answer in English.  At times they will use the Spanish word to identify an object, but I continue addressing them in Spanish.

Occasionally I am approached by a stranger who also speaks Spanish, and she will engage them. Sometimes they will answer in Spanish, but most times they answer in English.

I have come to accept that they will answer with the language that they choose. But the mere fact that they understand Spanish is enhancing their vocabulary and their interpersonal skills.

I only revert back to English when I am disciplining, talking about an intimate subject, or simply telling them how much I love them.  I find that both anger and love do not have the same significance for me in a foreign language, and I have come to terms with that understanding.

Nevertheless, my sons are being raised bilingually, and receiving an education in foreign language that is nontraditional and unparalleled. I would encourage any other Spanish enthusiast like me, or a non-native speaker or a language, to create a bilingual home right from birth.   It is definitely a worthwhile endeavor Once you develop a strong backbone to stand up to the skeptics, the results will make you extremely proud of your intentions.

This post is part of Multilingual Families Series on Bilingual Kidspot. Are you raising a bilingual child? Subscribe for related articles. Follow on Facebook and join our private discussion group.

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3 Comments

  1. Carol McCain

    Excellent story sharing an excellent concept and practice!

  2. Lynn Baldwin

    I absolutely loved reading your story as mine is similar! I also am trying to raise my son (who’s now 7) bilingual Spanish-English. Like you, I’m a Spanish enthusiast (love that expression) who has spent time in Spanish-speaking countries. Although I have a high degree of non-native fluency, I sometimes get frustrated that I have to look up so many words and worry that my accent is not good enough. My son understands, but also typically answers me in English, although he often starts his sentences with “Mami, sabes que..” Like your kids, he does speak more Spanish with native speakers. I think we should both keep up it:-)

    • jamie

      Thank you for sharing, Lynn. One of my main reasons for writing this article (and others like this) is to find other enthusiasts like us. There are no resources for non-native speakers who are embarking on a similar journey in life, and I hope that my articles will spawn conversation and hopefully connect like-minded people. Thank you for your input and keep up the great job!

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