I Don’t Speak English With My Bilingual Son. Here’s Why
No one has ever been as committed to learn Spanish as I was when we found out my wife was pregnant.
Spanish is my wife’s native tongue, and properly communicating with my future mother-in-law would be nearly impossible if I didn’t elevate my rudimentary grasp of the language. So, with these dual promises locked in, I had some serious work to do. I was introduced to Spanish in elementary school and continued with basic classes through high school. I even took a few quarters of Spanish at UCLA to fulfill my language requirement. The problem was that despite being a native of Los Angeles, I never really took the language seriously. I just wanted to pass the classes. While that did give me a foundation, it made me realize how much time I’d actually wasted when I could and should have been learning.
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After the promise to my father-in-law, I set out to be a capable, if not fluent speaker in Spanish. I made lists, by topic, of words I thought I would need to know and studied them. I bought “Spanish for Dummies” and tried to speak basic platitudes with my family. But I wasn’t practicing and I wasn’t really learning: I was memorizing, but not applying. For the next five years I continued like this, with that promise nagging in the back of my head every time I would drink a cerveza or celebrate at a fiesta with my in-laws. My wife, thankfully, never pressured me, but I figured I owed it to her and what was now Our Family.
Then my wife became pregnant and everything clicked. I live in Los Angeles, a city where 38% of the population speaks Spanish. Mexico is our favorite place to visit. My favorite food includes not just street tacos, but chilaquiles, posole, and fideo. Why was I wasting this opportunity, and how could I not give my son-to-be every possible advantage, including a full embrace of the culture? I knew right away that I would have to raise my son bilingual, and to do that would involve me being bilingual, or at least close.
I ordered the Pimsleur compact disc set so I could listen to Spanish on my commute. I purchased Rosetta Stone so I could practice reading, writing, speaking, listening in my downtime. I downloaded the Duolingo app on my phone so I could practice while waiting in lines and walking. Most importantly, I started speaking Spanish whenever I could: at work, the grocery store, at the gym, and with my extended family. I found a couple wonderful podcasts that were targeted at beginners. I immersed myself as much as I possibly could without relocating.
This quest was as much for me as it was for my father-in-law, but even more than that, it was for my soon-to-be son. This commitment resonated when we were seeking a name that was familiar and comfortable in both English and Spanish. Some sounded great in one language and awkward and the other (try saying Floyd or Fred in Spanish, or Fortunato in English), while others were impossible to “translate” (like Xóchitl). I knew during that period that I was tying my legacy and that of my son to his dual identity. I continued studying and practicing the language, knowing that the early linguistic basics would not entail advanced knowledge of grammar, conjugation, and punctuation. Doing some simple math based on projections of when my son would attend school, I figured that I essentially had a three-year window.
Felix was born and we were able to celebrate this cherished moment together, as a family. Though I was nowhere near fluent at that point, I felt comfortable communicating and getting my major points across. I believed that I was connecting him to his culture and background, and via proxy, further developing my intimate relationship with his culture.
Through Felix’s first year, I spoke only in Spanish and would ask my wife to translate when I was stuck. I anticipated that there would be obstacles for me; there would be times that I would need to communicate something either swiftly or sternly, and stumbling over the words — or asking for help, mid-sentence — would negate the impact of what I was trying to say. Continuing my journey, I would need to “stay ahead” of Felix, knowing that children learn at a much faster clip than I would, with my 30-something-year-old brain. It was frustrating, but it was a challenge to overcome.
When Felix first began to speak, his “mamá” y “papá” were spoken in proper dialect. Banana became “plátano,” avocado was “aguacate,” and milk was “leche.” I tried to accelerate my learning by listening to CNN Español and having more conversations. We enrolled Felix in an immersion preschool, which had a profound impact on my comprehension, as I would have many more interactions and conversations in Spanish. I also felt that Felix and I were developing a bond beyond what we could have had without Spanish: we had twice as many languages to use while joking around, or discussing Paw Patrol, or playing Legos. And now he could torment our dogs in two languages, too.
The decision to enroll at The Language Grove was met with excitement by his maternal grandparents, but my mother was confused. Why would we send our “American” child, she wondered, to a Spanish-speaking school? What if he doesn’t learn to speak English? I showed her the abundant data that shows that bilingualism improves problem-solving, multitasking, and decision-making. I assured her that Felix would receive so much exposure to English that it would be nearly impossible for him not to be proficient.
Being the supportive grandmother she is, she backed the decision, but I would cringe a little bit each time she addressed Felix in English and he would respond with a blank stare. It pained me to know that they did not develop an immediate connection because of a language barrier, and I was sometimes conflicted. But we were all-in on this decision, and trusted that his English and Spanish were developing concurrently. I had to do as much reassurance with my mother as I did with Felix, and it could get overwhelming, but I knew it was the right decision, especially when he enrolled at the school.
The Language Grove was an immediate benefit for Felix and we were thrilled. He was adding new Spanish words and phrases, some of which I would have to look up and add to my list. It was truly a treat to have conversations with him in Spanish, and it was great practice for me to talk with his teachers in Spanish. The school had wonderful events that educated us both — a farmers market (mercado de granjeros), gardening (jardenería), Día de los Muertos festivities — and we were both learning rapidly.
Then one day, when he was 4 years old, Felix came home speaking English. All of a sudden, he didn’t want to speak Spanish. He would say to me, “How come you get to talk English with mamá?” And really, I didn’t have a great answer. My wife and I still spoke English together because, if you have a spouse, you understand the importance of a regular paced conversation. I felt like I was betraying him. I ratcheted up the pressure on myself to “outlearn” my son, because I didn’t want to feel hypocritical.
This was a major obstacle, and we had to work through it. I didn’t want to feel like I was losing touch with my son, and I didn’t want to give up on ingratiating myself in that culture. It was frustrating, but I did not despair: instead, I doubled down and hired a Spanish tutor. I searched for even more Spanish speakers in my wake. During our trip to Mexico, I made sure I only spoke Spanish. But Felix continued to speak mostly English, especially with us. Luckily, he was able to reason and logic, and though the long-term importance of bilingualism is a tough concept for a 4-year-old to grasp, he continued to speak Spanish with his abuelos, and (mostly) at school.
As Felix now heads to kindergarten, he was accepted, after passing the Spanish fluency exam, into a public bilingual/immersion elementary school, and we’re now in a comfortable position. He knows he should speak Spanish. Most importantly, he clearly understands the language, and is equally comfortable speaking both.
Felix now will correct some of my grammar, fill in some blanks if I don’t know a word or two, and even speaks “Spanglish” at times to tease me about my accent. As for my commitment, it’s a work in progress but I feel great about where I stand. And seeing it reflected in Felix’s language skills is much more a sense of pride for the entire family.
Evan Lovett, a former L.A. Times sportswriter, owns an online advertising agency and lives and works in California with his wife and son. He is mostly bilingual, but always trying to improve. Follow him on Twitter @evanlovett.
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