Raising my son bilingual in non-native Spanish is exhausting me–should I continue?

Dear Dr. Gupta,

I am an adoptive parent raising my son, Oakley, in non-native Spanish. Increasingly, I have moments where I feel like I can’t keep on speaking to Oakley in Spanish. I’m exhausted.


Here are the reasons why speaking to him in Spanish is becoming onerous and, despite the cognitive value and specific educational productivity, unproductive:


1) Spanish is not my strong language, English is. Sometimes I think only people that speak more than one language really grasp what this truly means. Nine times out of 10 people who are fluent in two languages (or three or more, whatever) have one language that is the strongest, the most versatile for them, the most comfortable for them, the best with which to articulate themselves in nuanced complex ways etc. This has implications in the two following ways:


• His English is outperforming. Because Oakley’s English is moving forward at a faster rate than his Spanish, I hear him speak to others in English and realize that I’ve been treating him as if he were less mature or less cognitively advanced than he is. His English makes him seem like he’s incredibly smart and able to grasp more than his Spanish makes it seem like he can. The way he can articulate himself in English, I mean, is suggestive of a higher ability to understand and communicate. His Spanish is good for not even being three years old. Again, not as good as his English.


• My Spanish, and specifically my ability to transfer it to him, will plateau while my English will continue to rise. I can speak far more articulately in English than I can in Spanish. Despite fluency, my Spanish when compared to people who are highly educated in Spanish is relatively rudimentary. Parents transfer their vocabulary and ability to articulate to their children and with my Spanish, I will only be able to transfer a certain level of communication. (Which incidentally is no doubt part of the reason his English is more agile and advanced— a very educated, English-speaking-only Royce (my husband) speaks to him exclusively in English.) The Spanish is valuable, but I’m retarding my own speech and communication transference to him by continuing to speak almost exclusively in Spanish.


2) I feel there is a layer of intimacy lost between my son and I as I talk to him in Spanish. With one’s first and easiest language there is an irreplaceable fluidity and comfort that can’t be captured with a second language. Plus, since he is only able to articulate himself so well in Spanish, to a lesser degree than in English, I’m not intent on trying to have more complex conversations with him. I hear him talk to Royce and I am astonished at the depth at which they speak about one subject. Part of this may also be the fact that I just have less patience with my son than Royce does anyway. Royce is far more likely to have longer conversations with him at this age. It’s also because I’m the one who’s home with him all the time. And if you are the one parent home all the time with a toddler who never stops asking Why? Why? What is that? Why? you reach a breaking point with your desire to engage.


3) Parenthood can be exhausting. Especially lately our lives have experienced a lot of upheaval (relocation to D.C., Royce’s new job thus new schedule, my Dad’s cancer, we’re living among chaos with boxes, we have no one to babysit so far for any “date nights,” we’re unintentionally cosleeping after I haven’t seen my husband for two months because we can’t find the parts to Oakley’s bed!). These past few months have felt really hard in the parenthood department. Because Spanish takes extra effort for me, it sucks energy, and I become more irritable.


4) Family conversations between the three of us—Royce, Oakley and myself—are becoming more difficult. Royce is not a Spanish-speaker. Conversations are turning into this weird medley where I’m saying things to Oakley in Spanish, sometimes explaining what I’m saying to Oakley to Royce, Royce and Oakley are carrying on in English, then I just give up altogether and revert to English, and secretly chastise myself and revert back to Spanish.


On the other hand, you should hear Oakley speak in Spanish…it sets my heart on fire. His Spanish is impressive now and he is amazingly capable of using both languages and keeping them straight. So unbelievably smart.


Desperately, I need and want to find a good daycare (full-time or part-time depending on what my work situation dictates when and if) or preschool where he will be greatly exposed to, if not immersed in, Spanish.


I want to speak in English. It’s easier on everyone. What should I do?– Exhausted from Non-Native Spanish
Dear Exhausted from Non-Native Spanish,

What an impressive achievement! And valid problems arising now as Oakley gets bigger. I gather that you are the only person for Oakley to get Spanish from. To maintain his Spanish and to ease the pressure on you, that needs to change —you need other people.


You have made one suggestion, to look for a preschool or day care centre where he will hear Spanish. Good idea. Is there a Spanish-medium day-care centre where you live in D.C.? Or a day-care centre attended by a high proportion of Spanish-speaking children? It is especially important that Oakley has contact with other children who speak Spanish.


In addition, some further suggestions:


* Don’t be afraid to code-mix. Feel free to mix Spanish and English in your own speech. This will be better for his Spanish than switching entirely to English and may allow you to feel that you can give him of your own linguistic best in English as well.


* Hunt out Spanish-speaking families with children his age. Plan time with them. It will be ideal if they can’t speak English. I see that there are many Spanish speaking clubs in and around D.C. (http://spanish.meetup.com/cities/us/dc/washington)— are you a member? Any other clubs?


* Go on holiday to somewhere where everyone speaks Spanish. Look out for some children for him to play with while you are there.


* Finally, congratulate yourself for getting this far. Even if you start using more English with him and even if his Spanish declines because of this or for some other reason, you have set a foundation in his head which will help him if he learns Spanish (or any other language) later.

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Anthea Fraser Gupta is a sociolinguist with an interest in how children learn to talk. She was born into a monolingual environment in Middlesbrough, England, but enjoyed learning about languages from an early age. She gained a B.A. in English Linguistic Studies and Archaeology at the University of Newcastle, then went on to do an M.A. in Linguistics. She left Newcastle in 1975 to work in Singapore, where she encountered a society in which multilingualism is usual and expected. In Singapore nearly all children come to nursery school already able to speak 2 or 3 languages. While lecturing in the linguistics of English at the National University of Singapore, she did a doctoral degree at the University of York, looking at the language acquisition over two years of four Singaporean children who were growing up with four languages. In Singapore, she also married a man from a multilingual family from India. She returned to England in 1996 to the School of English at the University of Leeds, where she taught courses on both English language and bilingualism until her retirement in 2010. Anthea has had experience in a range of multilingual and multicultural societies and families. She has published books and articles on English, especially the language use of children in Singapore, and has also produced a novel for children set in Singapore. She is deeply interested in child development and believes that the most important thing in raising a child is to provide love and stimulation, regardless of what language or languages are learned.


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