A few weeks ago, when I picked up my eleven-year-old son from school, I noticed something different about him. He sat in the back seat of our van quietly. I looked through the rearview mirror and smiled at him. I knew he’d tell me what was bothering him when he was ready. Sure enough, a few minutes later he said, “Some kids were making fun of me today.”
“What happened, why?” I asked, worried.
“They said I couldn’t say, ‘irregularmente’. IRREGULARMENTE. Am I saying it right?”
“It can be a difficult word to pronounce. But I think you’re doing a great job,” I told him.
“The kids who speak Spanish say I can’t speak Spanish. The thing is, I understand what everybody says, but when I try to talk, I can’t put the words in the right order, or say them right…”
I nodded. I knew too well what he was talking about. I’m a native Spanish speaker from Lima, Peru. I enrolled in a three year English program and I did great. But when I came to live in the United States, I realized that what I had learned on the books wasn’t necessarily the way people talked in the real world.
My need to learn to speak English ‘the right way’, brought me to embrace the English-speaking world: We spoke Spanish at home, but outside the house we talked only in English. I watched TV shows in English with English captions. I read books only in English. After a while, I turned off the captions on the TV. Eventually, I started dreaming and thinking in English. My thoughts were fluent, but just as my son said to me, when I spoke, words wouldn’t come out exactly the way I wanted.
“You have an accent,” said a friend of mine who is a Spanish teacher. “It’s okay to have an accent.”
Those words were resounding in my ears when my son was talking to me about his difficult time with Spanish. When my son was born, he was brought into that English-learning environment at home. Although I talked to him mostly in Spanish, the world around him was talking to him in English. He spoke in mixed sentences like, “Can I have agua?” or “Dónde es my car?” He had a hard time at preschool because the teachers couldn’t understand half of his sentences.
We used to sit together to watch Blue’s Clues and Sesame Street. I found that it was a great way for me to practice my English skills. But my son was slowly becoming a native English speaker. I knew he understood Spanish, and for me, that was enough. When our second son came into this world, the two brothers spoke in English to each other and in “Spanglish” to Mom and Dad.
At some point, other moms made me feel guilty about my kids not being fluent in Spanish. I remember a dinner party where I had to sit in front of a ‘friend’ bragging about her kids being fully bilingual. That wasn’t the bad part: she actually told me how wrong it was that my children, being ‘Peruvian’, didn’t speak Spanish, and how I needed to sign them up for an online school in Peru, because that’s what she did with her children. She said that I was supposed to ‘make them’ talk to me in Spanish, that I should just turn my back to them whenever they spoke in English. That was not my parenting style, but I was stuck in my chair listening to her non-stop criticism. She wouldn’t let go of the subject and I was annoyed, so I ended the conversation by telling her that I wasn’t a bit worried about my kids not being fluent in our language. But I was lying. At that point I felt like a failure. I concluded that kids learn their maternal language when their parents are consistent. It was my fault: I wasn’t consistent.
Time has taught me to not listen to free advice. Every person’s circumstances are different. To me, it was hard enough being a mom in a foreign country, so I let go of the guilt. I asked myself, “Is it important to me that my children speak Spanish?” The answer was yes, but not because someone was shaming me into doing it. It’s important because being bilingual is a tool for life. I’m proud to say that I’m chasing my dreams and taking matters into my own hands: I’m writing children’s books in English and in Spanish. Most importantly, I’m showing my children that it’s never too late to start from scratch and that talent and dedication don’t have an accent.
My oldest son has decided to improve his Spanish speaking skills. And of course, I’m there to help. I’ve gathered books, videos, and lined up relatives to Skype with him. Every day I make a conscious effort to speak to him, and my other two children, in Spanish, even if I have to repeat myself twice. Am I being consistent? I don’t know, but I’m doing my best.
Back to a few weeks ago, when my downhearted son was sitting in the back seat of my van, I could tell that his feelings had been hurt. I wanted to go and talk to those children. I wanted to tell them that my son was making a big effort. But I didn’t. I have to let him fight his own battles.
“You know what?” I said, “It’s okay to have an accent.”
“I visit schools and read my books aloud, and people don’t seem to mind my thick accent. Most people think it’s cool to be able to speak in two languages.”
“What if they make fun of you?” he asked. “What if they told you that you couldn’t speak English?”
“I would smile. And ask them to repeat it in Spanish.”
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