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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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10 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!

      • Kara

        I really enjoyed your article. It is exciting to find others doing the same thing and it’s interesting seeing that you are much further along in your journey. 🙂 I’m happy to say there are lots of resources for non-native speaking parents. There are several Facebook groups that have formed in the last couple years. Through those groups, I seen podcasts and blogs and learned about several books on the subject. I know of at least one Spanish-English online group that is solely dedicated to parents learning how to say things to their kids in their non-native language. It is a great feeling to find others that can share in the experience!

  3. F Hutton

    I rally enjoyed this article as I am an Italian enthusiast (I also love Spanish but my Italian proficiency is higher!), and am currently ‘introducing’ my six month old daughter to Italian. I always tend to say ‘introducing’ partly as a way to deflect criticism from those who don’t understand my intentions but also because I am less rigorous than using the OPOL approach. I chat to her in Italian when we are alone and sing and read stories to her, but tend to switch to English when daddy comes home. Daddy speaks Cantonese but even if less strict than me!

    I did originally think that raising your child with another language was an ‘all or nothing’ scenario, with the objective as them becoming the equivalent of a native speaker. Of course, this is the intention for most people, but I then realised that for me it was enough to introduce her to the languages to try and foster her interest and awareness for other cultures and to also be able to communicate a bit. I have just joined a local Italian playgroup so hoping that will encourage her to make friends in Italian and see it as a fun language!

    It’s so encouraging that others have done this successfully and I’m not so eccentric!

    • jamie

      I totally agree that using the term “introducing” the new language to your baby is a great way to deflect criticism and skeptics. Furthermore, we cannot force our children to love languages as much as we do, but we can encourage their bilingual ability by simply providing them the foundation right from birth. Good going!

  4. Dani

    Hi, I really enjoyed your post! Thanks for sharing your story! I, too, am a non-native Spanish speaker, and am raising my now 14 month old son in Spanish. I speak to him in Spanish about 95% of the time, and my husband speaks to him in English with some Spanish words and phrases mixed in. My husband has been picking up on Spanish through hearing me interact with our little one. Our plan is to home school our son and any other children that we have in the future, and I hope to teach him his subjects in Spanish as if we were a dual-language school… starting off with 90% Spanish and 10% English, then slowly increasing the English year-by-year until we are 50/50. I have already found two Christian curricula in Spanish that I’m excited about, and look forward to teaching our boy about Jesus in the language that He’s made me so passionate about. Like you, I started off learning Spanish in school, then became enamored with the language, culture, travel, etc. Living abroad is how I also gained greater fluency in the language. Thank you again for sharing; please continue to post about your boys’ progress on this journey. May God bless you.

  5. John

    Great article! It’s so reassuring to hear success stories like this.

    I’m doing the same with my daughter (now 14 months), and at times it can get frustrating, and self-doubt can set in easily. You’re never going to know EVERYTHING, just like your primary language. We are always learning.

    I think it’s helpful to be realistic in your goals. If your children can speak/understand as well as you, or even half as well as you, that’s still very much a success. Having basic knowledge in a second language is very helpful, and can set the foundation for further language learning.

    Thanks again !

  6. Cheryl H.

    Love to read your family story! It was great!

    I am also struggling to teach my children a foreign language which is not used in school or in the community. My problem is, I can’t speak that language as fluently as you do for your Spanish.

    My case is more complicated here, as all children are raised to be trilinguals and I have added French to be their fourth language. My standard is comparatively low at the lower side of level B2, so I can basically read stories to my kids, sing nursery rhymes to them and make simple daily conversations to them in French, including greetings, simple questions and commands, etc. As the language environment is already complicated in the community, I focused on their mother tongue (MY mother tongue) and our second language English, leaving their third language to school (as I personally dislike it, regardless of the fact that I speak all three languages with native fluency).

    When I was with my first child alone, we focused on her L1 and French as I tried, but now with my second child, I am forced to deal with the big mistakes they make in English copied from the domestic helper. I was the major caretaker of my first baby but now I am not their major caretaker anymore. So I seldom have chance to teach my younger kid French, being so being correcting his English.

    For our family, OPOL strategy wouldn’t work, as I am the only one speaking semi-fluent French. I have got so, so many French children as books but my kids don’t like to read them as they can’t read the words. I feel quite desperate, and even bringing my older child to France for a vacation this past summer holiday didn’t seem to have helped much, except for strengthening her motivation. I am getting quite desperate. Anyone can give me some advices on what strategies told techniques I can apply???

    Thanks so much in advance!

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