I assumed my kids would speak Spanish from the start
Growing up bilingual in Guatemala, it never crossed my mind that one day my children would not speak Spanish. To me it seemed as much of a given as breathing in and out.
Fast forward many years, now living in the US, married to an American who did not know Spanish, in the Midwest without a Spanish speaking community it seemed like an impossible task.
For the first year I tried hard to follow the OPOL language strategy, (one person one language) but as I worked outside the home the amount of Spanish my eldest was exposed to was very small.
The older she got the less she seemed to understand me.
I gave up
When those terrible twos and my middle child came, I gave up. It was too much and I was fighting a losing battle.
Then I had a third child, and I found ways of justifying to myself why it was ok and how there were many other great things they had going on in their lives.
I convinced myself that raising good little humans who were kind and compassionate was more important than fighting for language acquisition constantly.
In December 2019 I felt I had come to a good acceptance of our language reality and gave away every single children’s book in Spanish that had been collecting dust unused.
I was ready to close that chapter and look forward guilt free.
At the beginning of March 2020, both my girls expressed interest in Spanish which had never happened before. My eldest knew a few numbers and a few random phrases. My middle and youngest even less. They specifically said “Why don’t we know Spanish? Can you teach us?”
I had never stopped talking about my childhood in Guatemala, the food and the culture. Somehow I had managed to spark interest.
I always shared family photos, showed them movies and documentaries about Guatemala, brought books and even got an American Girl doll size huipil. My girls love their dolls so they could relate.
I was so happy that they were expressing interest in learning more about my mother tongue, that I jumped on the idea and ordered the most basic Spanish workbook.
Little did we know, the world we knew it was about to change completely.
The world shut down
The world shutdown because of the pandemic, literally days after we got our workbooks.
My kids’ lives went from busy schedules to being at home with me 100% of the time. I went from rushing to the office to working from home and spending every minute with them.
I was excited and nervous but I had been given a wonderful gift – time AND their interest!
I also received another unexpected gift. The amount of resources for learning at home exploded as educators sought to share to help children continue learning at home.
There were resources available at my fingertips that were not there in the past when I had toyed with teaching my kids at home. Some were free and some paid for but they were available to me.
I excitedly spent many hours on blogs, Pinterest, Teachers pay Teachers and Facebook groups, connecting and learning about how to teach my kids Spanish.
My goal was simply to have them learn a little, whatever they could or were willing to learn.
I lowered my expectations regarding language and felt that anything they learned was a bonus.
I started small with our basic Spanish workbook and by repeating our entire morning routine in English and Spanish.
Buenos días, good morning. ¿Dormiste bien? Did you sleep well? ¿Queres jalea o mantequilla? Do you want jelly or butter?
There was a lot of pointing and miming.
My throat was sore and our conversation was so repetitive and basic but I stuck to it.
And one morning I started to slowly drop the English.
Spanish and pointing. It was working!
I connected on Facebook groups to other mothers who struggled to teach their kids their native language. The Raising Bilingual Kids and Little Global Citizens is a great one, and more specifically Raising Bilingual Kids in Spanish. Joining these groups and connecting with others in the same situation made me feel less alone and I found encouragement to not give up.
Slowly I learned how to motivate my kids, remember that first workbook? I promised them if they completed it in their own time, I would buy them a book of their choice – not even Spanish related!
It took them 9 months but they did it! And they didn’t just fill it in, they actually learned.
While my main focus was my two girls, my youngest son was soaking it up. He would repeat random phrases and say “What did I say?” and would get the biggest kick out of it.
Eventually he wanted his own workbook deal. I bought him a Spanish preschool version of what the girls started with, and he has been sticking with it.
I worry less about him because he is starting younger, he thinks it is normal to want to learn Spanish thanks to his sisters.
I read stories of moms who lose the battle on teaching Spanish and my heart hurts for them because I have been there and know what that feels like, to try convince yourself that you are ok with this loss.
Learn Spanish for Kids – Free online materials
Each child is learning differently
Each of my kids is experiencing language learning with me very differently.
My 10 year old does a lot of grammar work, flashcards, note cards, Duolingo and has a weekly tutor – that is how she learns best. She wants to know the rules and “Why?” is her favorite question.
Her tutor is Guatemalan, which is very important to me, so that they have a Guatemalan accent. Her tutor does not speak English but she has a lot of experience teaching Spanish and dealing with children. An hour might not seem like much but it helps set the topic and to review for the rest of the week, I build on their work.
My 8 year old learns best with games, simple worksheets that resemble what she does at her school, videos and songs. Her eyes glaze over if I try to explain why anything!
So I play games with her. I started in the beginning by just playing games we already had but only in Spanish. She loves the one-on-one time with me so she was willing to switch to Spanish playtime.
Initially it was many hands of Uno just repeating numbers and colors. Trouble was also a great one in the beginning. It is surprising how much you can add in, phrases like: “Tu turno.”, “¡Ganaste!”, and “¡Buen juego!”.
Now we have progressed to more Spanish specific games such as a conjugation board game and verb lottery but still have kept up playing all the standards of childhood with Spanish.
My youngest is just soaking it up in daily life and his workbook he is so proud of. We start and end our day in Spanish and I could not be more amazed.
There is a whole lot more English than Spanish in our house but the Spanish they experience daily is more than I would have imagined a year ago. Every day, I add a tiny bit more. There are funny moments that show me that I am on the right track.
It’s never too late
I am hopeful that my story can inspire others to know that it is never too late. Hold on to that bilingual dream and look for an opportunity to start.
It doesn’t have to be a full flip in language overnight to make a difference. I found a path for us. I hope my story can help you find yours.
Author: Maria, a native Spanish speaker living with her family in the US.