Real Intercultural Family in the U.S.: Mandarin, Spanish and English


Welcome Carmen and Whitney!


Where are you from?


Whitney: Hanover, New Hampshire U.S..

Carmen: Quito, Ecuador


Where do you currently live and what countries have you lived in together?


We live in San Francisco and have temporarily lived together in Quito, Ecuador and Paris, France. We have traveled together to many places around the world like: India, Turkey, South East Asia, Central and South America and Europe.


How did you meet? (And please give us the good, long story with all the details!)


Whitney: We met through common friends when Carmen came “temporarily” to live, study and work in the U.S.


Carmen: When I moved to San Francisco I looked for an apartment to share and I found one that I liked in North Beach. Whitney was one of the roommates. I met Whitney after I had met the other roommates. He lived in a sailboat during the week in Palo Alto, where he was working and doing his master’s degree and only stayed in this apartment in North Beach on the weekends. We liked each other from the beginning, but did not start dating until a year later.  Whit always feels shy about that story, but I actually think it is cute. We were good friends for a year before dating and I think that has made our relationship a long-term one. We used to go running and hiking and cappuccino drinking together around North Beach.


How old are your children and where were they born?


Carmen: Isabela is 10 years old and Sebastian is six-and-a-half years old. Both were born in San Francisco, but since I went with Isabela to Ecuador when she was 10 months old and stayed almost a year there, she insists she is from Ecuador as well.


What passports do you and the kids hold?


Carmen: Isabela and Sebastian have U.S. and Ecuadorian passports as both countries accept dual citizenship.


What languages do you each speak and what language do you speak together?


Carmen: Whitney’s native language is English. Whit learned some basic French and German at school. We have been together for 20 years, so after so many years together he is able to understand and converse in Spanish and has made a good attempt at self-teaching Spanish as well as visiting Ecuador several times.


I grew up in Ecuador so my native language is Spanish. I went to a bilingual Spanish-English school from K through 12.  I went to the Alliance Française when I was a child for a couple of years after school, so I am able to understand French and speak a very basic level of it. I went to college in Brazil for a couple of years, but due to how similar it is to Spanish, I would say that I speak now Portuñol (a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese).


In what languages do you speak to the kids?


Carmen: In Spanish only, even if we are surrounded by only English speaking parents. I do speak with my husband in English and that is the language at home, as Whitney’s Spanish is not as fluent.


Whitney: English but sometimes Spanish. Wish my Spanish would be more fluent and our household could be a Spanish speaking household.


What languages do the kids speak?


Whitney: They speak fluent Spanish, English and Mandarin as they are both in a Mandarin immersion school.


Carmen:  As I look back and see my kids now finishing 1st and 4th grade in their Mandarin immersion elementary school as trilingual individuals, I really give credit to my going to Ecuador every year for one to two months to having maintained Spanish as well. I think for kids to really speak another language fluently, you have to immerse them at a young age in the language. I see many Americans who tell me I took Spanish and French at school, but can’t say much beyond a couple of words in those languages. It has taken some effort (and the generosity of my family receiving us there for free for a couple of months) to go back every year, but I’m pleased with the current results.


How do you reinforce the languages beyond just the parents speaking it?


Carmen: I speak with them exclusively in Spanish and take them to Ecuador once a year for one or two months for them to be immersed both in the culture and the language. My husband speaks to them in English and has been great reinforcing their reading and writing of it. We live in San Francisco so we can visit burrito places and practice Spanish, Chinese restaurants or markets and practice Chinese, and of course English is everywhere. My kids’ occasional babysitter is from Nicaragua and speaks to them only in Spanish. My daughter also goes for an hour and a half on Saturdays to a play-based class to reinforce her spoken Mandarin.


Whitney: Since the Mandarin immersion classrooms have about 19 kids each, they need more individual practice speaking the language. The Saturday “playdates” in Mandarin with an instructor and some friends has really helped loosen up Isabela.


What does raising a little global citizen mean to you?


Carmen: To me, raising a global citizen means raising someone who not only is able to converse in another language, but is able to respect and value the idiosyncrasies and ways of behavior that come from people living in different places or coming from different cultures. My goal is to raise not only bilingual people, but bicultural people. I also never wanted to have my kids be foreigners in the culture I grew up in and then never be able to relate to it, therefore I have raised them as people from both cultures: mine and my husband’s.


Do you have any advice for parents raising multilingual kids on what works and what doesn’t?


Carmen: My best advice for parents who live in cities where they have access to public immersion schools of any kind are take advantage and give your child the gift of another language. Once people pass a certain age, it is very hard and would take years and a lot of money to learn another language. Bilingual schools are another great way to have the kids learn another language. To parents who speak a different language from the language where they live: speak to your child in your native language AND BE CONSISTENT.


What religion are you both? And how are you raising the kids?


We do not raise the kids with any religion, but do enforce some spirituality.


What are some of your biggest cultural differences (if applicable)?


Carmen: I’m extroverted and Whitney is an introvert and we have to respect each other’s need to see people or stay solo. Aside from that being a personality issue, I think that it comes too from growing up in a large Latin family whose relatives stay in the city for many years and so one grows up relating with many people of all ages.


I also have a huge Latin-American community of people. Whitney has a very small community of New Englanders. Even though most of my family lives in Ecuador, since I come from a very large family (I have five siblings, 20 plus cousins, 13 nephews and nieces and so on) plus all the friends I still keep in touch with from Ecuador, this year we’ve had 17 sets of visitors from my side and just his mother from his side.


What have been your greatest challenges as an intercultural family?


We live very frugally, living in the apartment we bought 18 years ago, sending the kids to public school and so on, so we can have time with our kids and be able to take them traveling both to Ecuador and any place we can go as a family. We want to expose the kids to different languages and cultures and help them become open minded and well-rounded individuals.


What have been your greatest joys as an intercultural family?


My kids love visiting Ecuador and seeing their huge extended family there, as well as visiting with their Grandma and family in the U.S. We love to travel together as a family anytime we get a chance. We love to go on long road trips listening to stories on tape. Due to my brother-in-law’s job, my sister with her two girls, 12 and eight, has moved from Ecuador to El Salvador and is now in Mexico. We have gone to visit them wherever they go and they come to visit us. I love to see how well my kids interact with her kids thanks to the fact that they are all able to speak in Spanish with each other.


Anything else you would like to add?


I would like to say that life goes fast, and the kids grow so fast that the greatest gift you can give to your kids is the time you spend with them. Try to not get into big loans, huge mortgages or super expensive schools. Live frugally and spend time with your kids.



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