One of the biggest challenges faced by migrant families is deciding how to better get their kids to speak both languages. In the case of the Latino population in the United States and other Anglo countries, these idiomas are Spanish and English. Parents face the life altering decision of either fully embracing English at home or keeping the mother tongue alive. The choice might seem easy, but it involves a variety of factors. You might want your kid to be fully fluent in Spanish but don’t want them to feel left out when they go to school and their English is not there yet. You might be alone in the country and want your kids to fully assimilate, even though you don’t want them to lose your language and eventually forget your heritage. They say language shapes worlds and that is totally right: we use words to make sense of reality, to explain who we are to ourselves and to others.
Good news is, kids are really como esponjas, todo lo absorben. Children have an amazing capacity to assimilate words and concepts, and can easily switch from one language to the other if you give them the time and space to learn the difference between the two. By the time they are 18 months old, kids start categorizing the world: that is when they learn shapes, simple concepts like open/close and in/out, and also when they can start differentiating between languages. Like anything when it comes to parenting, there are no cookie cutter solutions or formulas, but here are some tips that can help out.
No baby talk, ever.
It is tempting to do baby talk with your little one. But it does them no good. Babies need to hear clear words, and going goo goo ga ga is not helping them. A good technique is to describe your actions: “I am changing your nappy, I am throwing it to the trash can, I am wiping your butt”. Or, the alternative: “Te estoy cambiando el pañal, ahora lo voy a tirar a la basura y te voy a limpiar las pompas”. Even if you are not raising a bilingual kid, this is the first rule: just dump the baby talk, porfas.
Be proud of your heritage.
Children are much more intuitive than we give them credit for. In the current political climate, it is easy to fall into the trap and feel like being bilingual is shameful rather than something to be extremely proud of. Give racist gringos the metaphorical finger, chin up, speak up and show pride. If you are afraid of speaking Spanish your kid will be too. It is easier said than done, but establishing the richness of multiculturalism is the only way to make society more inclusive, poquito a poco.
One parent speaks English, the other speaks Spanish.
This is an approach that is easy to take if one of the parents is a gringo. Kids can quickly understand that a parent talks to them in Spanish and the other one in English, and as they are learning to talk and bulking up on their vocabulary, they can categorize words. This is much clearer than saying “agua, water” while pointing to glass, as it might be too much information that is not put into the Spanish or English mental drawers right away. Also, it creates a great sense of complicity between parent and chaparrito.
Spanish only con los abuelitos.
Another good strategy is to have the grandparents speak to the child in Spanish, which also creates a special bond with the child. If you are lucky enough to have your Spanish-speaking parents or in-laws in your city, program regular play dates slash Spanish lessons. This can also give you and your partner some time alone, or some relaxing me-time if you are a single parent.
Language is fun, so don’t make it too serious.
Play games in your native language. For example, ‘I spy’, bingo or memory, key activities for incorporating new words into your little one’s vocabulary. You can also play a good old-fashioned LOTERIA.
Turn life into a lively musical!
All kids love, love, love music. You can sing songs, dance and play music in Spanish. What about a daily dance session with La Sonora Santanera or Los Angeles Azules? Melody is a great way to help them remember things, as new information sticks to their tiny and amazing brains by repetition. You can also play English and Spanish versions of their favorite songs… Let it go, let it go…..! Libre soy, libre soy!
Never underestimate the importance of numbers.
One of the first forms of abstraction that human beings learn is numbers. As your kids start counting, introduce both languages. There are some fun activities that you can do, such as taking them to the park and counting each push of the swing, first in English up to ten, luego hasta el diez. You can also get them to count characters or objects in books as you read to them at night.
Teach them the Spanish version of key introductory phrases.
“My name is…”, a key phrase that establishes a child’s individuality. There are such phrases that make social life possible. Teach your kids the Spanish formulation.
Listen to the radio.
Listen to radio programs in Spanish, including popular music programs and channels for kids. Thanks to services like Spotify it is easy now to listen to stations from all around the world.
Organize playtime with other children who speak Spanish. This will be key for building lifelong friendships. Parenting can sometimes be isolating, so this will also be beneficial for you, as you will be able to express yourself in your mother tongue, which sometimes makes for more intimate and lasting friendships
No te rindas.
Like all things concerning parenting, raising a bilingual will involve plenty of patience on your part. Some days it might seem like your chiquito doesn’t want to say hola. However, just hearing you speak your native language will help your child learn it.
Yeah, sometimes your kids end up watching TV.
But you can make the best of it in those times in which you feel you are the worst parent on Earth because you need to do the laundry or some work and your kids end up watching TV. Streaming services like Netflix provide the opportunity to change the language settings to Spanish, so the next time they watch PJ Masks or Paw Patrol they can actually learn some new words. Because dialogue in cartoons tends to be very descriptive, this will help them associate images and palabras.
Attend cultural events in Spanish.
Many communities in the United States organize events in Spanish, such as playtime, mother’s and father’s groups and concerts. Attend as many as possible, show your kid that your language is awesome, something that will open doors rather than close them.
In a sea of olive skin and dark eyes, there’s a tuft of blonde hair with baby blues. That guy with blue eyes is my person. At every christening, wedding, or birthday party, where there’s me, there’s my boyfriend. We go together without thinking, and I feel fortunate that I’m at a point in my life where bringing my boyfriend to family events is a given.
Throughout my dating life I’ve been asked “What you don’t like Latinos?” and “Will you ever date someone who isn’t white?” by friends and family alike.
For those asking: I do, and I have, but not with the frequency that the people asking those questions would like.
My grandparents came to the mainland in the 1950s and my great-grandfather, though born in Puerto Rico, was still considered a citizen of Spain. In comparison, his family lineage in the U.S. goes so far back that you can trace it to the Mayflower.
Often, I get called an “Oreo,” too white-minded to be Latina, and too dark-skinned to be white. I’m conscious of our differences, but I don’t date my boyfriend to be a living educational exhibit. I refuse to be fetishized or exoticized. I am who I am.
Even so, I have a lot to learn in terms of how I project some old cultural customs, be they sexist or racist, onto people I love.
My boyfriend and I aren’t afraid to talk about it as a couple or as friends.
The upbringing I have had, as traditional as it is, has led me to be judgmental, private, and less open. Meanwhile, he is open to my family and my culture. Where he jumps head-first, I’m hesitant to do the same because I’m afraid to lose sight of who I am.
Comments on my being one half of an interracial couple have always made me feel like my romantic relationships aren’t my own, and that to be in one, it had to please the people around me.
Yes, I do believe that your friends and family ultimately want the best for you. And yes, Latino families are sometimes so on our cases we don’t know where we end and they begin. It’s the positive danger of coming from a culture that’s close-knit, regardless of whether or not you want it to be. But, you learn to work with and around it.
I’m sure that when my loved ones ask me these questions, they do so less out of malice, and more of concern. Maybe to them, by being with someone who doesn’t share my cultural upbringing, I’m missing out on the best parts of my heritage.
In this relationship, I do see color.
We are two completely different people. Racially, and in turn socioeconomically. These two things play a key role in our relationship. Our interactions consist in “we don’t do that” or “you can’t say that,” and “when you say that, you sound like,” fill in the blank.
I call him out when he says something culturally insensitive or racially charged. I tell him when his privilege is showing. He lets me know when my upbringing doesn’t allow me to express thoughts and ideas I have due to fear or being shut out by others in my Latino community.
My boyfriend was never a dance partner at a quinceanera, he has never seen a quenepa up-close, and bendiciones to the elders was a foreign concept that he’s continually being introduced to. But although he’s new to all of those things, he embraces them.
When I say that, I don’t mean that he works to be or act Latino.
I do mean that he works to see the value in these things that are foreign to him, but non-negotiable as part of my life, and in turn, our partnership.
He seeks out this understanding. He asks questions about what he can’t relate to through personal experience and admits that there’s more to the Latino community than he realizes.
Together, we are on a journey to unlearn the bad and embrace the good in both of us. It’s hard, it’s messy, and there are fights. But this is the future, one of color-conscious love that, as a result, allows the best of us to shine through.
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