“Say something in English,” he said. “Oh, say something in English… what do you want me to say in English? You prefer mami talks to you in English?,” I said. “Yes,” he answered. If you follow me on Instagram, you probably watched this video of my toddler asking me to switch to English. As a mom raising kids to speak both Spanish and English, I’ve had my share of bilingual parenting mistakes along the road, and I’m still learning with my youngest as each child brings its own set of challenges.
For many, raising bilingual seems like a challenging task that requires time and attention that is already scarce in the life of a mom. In my experience, the rewards of teaching the minority language to my children far surpass the effort it takes to be consistent in teaching them as a part of our daily lives. Of course, I’ve also made many bilingual parenting mistakes along the way and I’m better because of them today.
I must confess that some days can be frustrating when we feel our children are not responding or are simply refusing to speak the minority language. However, in motherhood, many of our endeavors can be frustrating at times, and even stressful. The important thing is to keep in mind our goal, as well as taking into consideration the unique needs of each of our children.
As moms, we face pressure and criticism on a daily basis and there is no shortage of people who would point out the bilingual parenting mistakes we make in our journey to raise bilingual children. We often receive advice on “best practices” about pretty much everything we do, from bedtimes to school choice, to “why we should not confuse our kid and just teach them English”. We file that under things we take with a grain of salt and move on to continue with what we feel is best for our kids.
Despite all that, we worry if we are doing it right and wonder what are we doing wrong, and as such, we want to know how to fix it. That’s why I’m sharing 10 bilingual parenting mistakes I’ve made over the years, and the solutions I’ve come up to solve them.
5 Bilingual Parenting Mistakes I’ve Made
- Dislike Code-Switching. When I first moved to the US, I was one of those Spanish snubs who thought that Spanglish was the end of the language. That was one of the first bilingual parenting mistakes I made when my daughter was born. I didn’t want her to mix the languages and become confused. However, I didn’t know then what I know now, code-switching is a normal phenomenon among bilinguals; 14 years later in my bilingual journey, I’m pretty comfortable code-switching myself. Code-switching is not a bad thing, is part of the natural selection process of the brain choosing what comes easier to communicate what the child wants.
- Not Having A Set Methodology. From the beginning of our bilingual journey, I knew I wanted to go with the method called ‘minority language at home (ML@H)’ in which we all commit to speaking only Spanish to our kids. The problem was that my husband was more comfortable with speaking English to her. Which is the other method you can choose: ‘one parent, one language (OPOL)’. The mistake was the lack of a solid plan, and once I figure that out, I got my husband on board and we continued with ML@H modified. The way I modified this method was a different definition of ‘home’ because it doesn’t confine to the walls of my house. We simply speak Spanish to our kids at all times, in and outside the house. It has proven very effective.
- Following The Child’s Lead. Because kids tend to favor the majority language, which in our case is English, I’ve made the mistake of replying in English to questions from my children. This is especially true when it comes to my youngest, who has proven to be the most challenging of my 3 children when it comes to language acquisition. Because I lead my life in English, it becomes hard to remember to answer in Spanish at all times. That, however, is the task: Spanish only. Plus, it is good practice to repeat the question back to them in the minority language, so they can record it and eventually use it themselves.
- Lacking Other Exposure. While I have given priority to speaking only Spanish with my kids, another of my bilingual parenting mistakes has been failing to be consistent with other forms of exposure to the language. Because we live in the US, the majority of the books my kids read are in English, and while I purchase books in Spanish regularly, I haven’t enforced reading in Spanish during their daily readings. Listening to me read stories is a great way to show them to imagine and dream in the minority language. Another tool at my disposal that I often forget about, is that Netflix has the option of changing the language to Spanish for many kids shows. Although the TV won’t teach the minority language, it can certainly help them listening by listening to it.
- Interrupting While The Kid Talks. This one has been a big issue for me in raising bilingual children, mainly because I cringe every time I hear a word pronounced wrong, the incorrect tense on a verb or simply a sentence conceived in English and said in Spanish. What I’ve learned with this and other bilingual parenting mistakes I’ve made over the years is that the same way children are learning grammar and a proper way of speaking in the majority language, they are bound to make many mistakes, and even more so, in the minority one. Allowing children to make those mistakes without constantly interrupting them is the best way to help them develop language skills. It is okay to correct them every now and then but is more important to let them make those connections by practicing. A good way to help kids learn the right way to say something is by repeating the sentence to them correctly. Time will do the rest.
These are only a few of the mistakes I’ve made in parenting bilingual kids, and I’ve also heard my share of misguided advice from doctors and concern friends and family members. As moms, it is best to seek information and learn as much as we can about what’s best in terms of raising bilingual children and make decisions based on what’s the right approach for our own children and their unique needs and abilities.
I’d love to hear from you! What have you learned in your bilingual parenting journey?Let's embrace diversity and create social change! © Dania Santana ~ Embracing Diversity
Multiculturalism, Diversity & Inclusion Expert | Author | Speaker