Note: This is an essay that was written for and published on Parents.com in 2020. However, due to website changes beyond my control, my essay is no longer available on the site… But the internet gods allowed me to find it in its entirety, so I am re-posting it here since a) this was a really important, heartfelt essay that I still think about often & b) it’s an important message that I want to make sure is still out there for others to see. Enjoy!
I never imagined how difficult it would be to raise a bilingual son and teach him to learn Spanish as I did growing up. But I’ve learned there are other ways to raise a proud bicultural kid.
When I was pregnant and excitedly talking with my husband about all of the things that we wanted to teach our child, Spanish was at the top of my priority list. Growing up in Florida with two parents who spoke fluent Spanish, I know how much I benefited from learning the language and I wanted my baby to grow up just like I did.
But now, six months into my son’s life, the book Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability lays unopened on my nightstand—along with all of the other parenting books I bought last year. And instead of greeting my baby every morning with, “Hola, mi bebé, buenos dias,” I say a simple, “Good morning, baby.” What I’ve realized, to my own shock and horror, is that I am actually afraid to talk to my baby in Spanish.
I never imagined that would be the case because learning Spanish didn’t seem like such a big deal when I was growing up. My dad is Cuban and my mom is Russian, and I learned both their languages simultaneously. After my family moved to the U.S. from Moscow when I was 8 years old (after also briefly living in Havana), I learned English as well. It all seemed pretty seamless, and that’s how I expected the experience to go with my own child.
But when it came time to actually make an effort to speak with my son in Spanish, I realized my huge disadvantage: Spanish is not my native language. I know there are people in similar situations who are still able to speak another language fluently, like my mother who learned Spanish at 18 when she met my dad. But in my immigrant family’s quest to integrate into American culture, I didn’t spend a lot of my youth actually learning proper Spanish. Sure, I can understand a decent amount and I can even speak it a bit, but I can’t really write in Spanish. Even worse, I don’t ever think in Spanish.
I experienced overwhelming guilt in the early months of my baby’s life because I felt I was failing at creating a bilingual household. The more I tried to speak to him in Spanish, the more upset I became. What was wrong with me? I kept thinking. If I had been honest with myself, though, I would have been able to understand that even me speaking in Spanish took great effort … so, of course, it would be difficult to teach someone else Spanish.
Once I understood that constantly speaking to my baby in Spanish, the way I had dreamed of doing when he was still in utero, wasn’t going to work, I finally began to focus on other ways of teaching him the language.
The first thing I did was start playing Spanish music around the house whenever my baby was awake, especially when we were playing. Sometimes, I’d put on and sing along to the late Selena Quintanilla—an artist I listened to on repeat the first year we moved to the U.S. Other times, I’d play more modern hits like Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” (the Spanish version) and we’d dance.
I also started to research bilingual and Spanglish books that I could easily read to my baby. I fell in love with the company Lil’ Libros, and instantly bought First 100 Words in English & Spanish. It’s a simple enough book that I feel confident I could handle reading on my own since it shows pictures and features the words in both languages. I plan to buy more Lil’ Libros books and want to find other bilingual ones that we can read together as he grows up.
As we navigate these many years of trying to raise a bilingual, bicultural little boy, I will continue to strive to do my best to teach him Spanish in the best way I can. Somedays that may mean showing him the same Disney movies that I grew up watching, but he will watch them in Spanish. Other days it might involve signing him up for a Spanish subscription box service, such as Hola Amigo. I might even take him to local baby Spanish music classes or look into a daycare that has Spanish-language integration—both things that I don’t feel safe doing until the COVID-19 pandemic is well under control.
Ultimately, I don’t know what this Spanish learning journey will look like for my child. I do know it may be long and difficult, especially since it’s not easy to be a Latinx person or an immigrant in the United States right now. Passing on our heritage is important to my family, but so is being safe in the middle of all of the hate that we as a people are facing. Sometimes, passing on the Spanish language and my culture feels too scary; other times, I know it is important for my son to understand his roots and to at least be able to somewhat understand the language his grandparents speak.
That’s why as he grows up, I will continue to find ways to teach him about his Latinx culture. Whether that’s with a mid-morning dance break to Selena’s “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” or with a baby-sized portion of arroz con frijoles (rice and beans) as he begins to eat solids.
Whatever I do, I know that I will do my best for him—without the guilt that speaking Spanish didn’t go as planned.