Bilingual Struggles

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.

FamilyMy 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.”

He nodded.

“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.”

 

Mariana Llanos

My books in Spanish: Mara sin Cumpleaños, El Monstruo Quierelotodo, Tristán LoboPageflex Persona [document: PRS0000446_00039]el monstruo quierelotodo_coverCubiertaSpanish

 

 

 

My Amazon author page: http://www.amazon.com/author/marianallanos

Note: This post appeared originally on Speekee, a blog for bilingual families and Spanish learners. I modified its original content to audition to a live-reading show called Listen To Your Mother (LTYM), which celebrates motherhood. I was invited to audition, but my piece didn’t make the cut. I wasn’t given a reason, but I still wanted to share the story…I hope you enjoyed it!
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26 thoughts on “Bilingual Struggles

  1. I recall my struggles to learn Italian while living in Italy. People would pat me on the head and say, “Ees okay. I speak Eenglish.” The most difficult part was being able to understand more than I could communicate.

    My mother, born in Canada but speaking only Ukrainian until she began to attend school at the age of seven, has an accent. I never noticed it until a friend commented on it one day. In those days, there were many jokes told in Western Canada about “stupid” Ukrainians, and I felt a bit embarrassed when this friend commented on my mother’s accent. Now, having developed a love for languages, I wish she’d taught me Ukrainian as a child.

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    1. Connie, I think when we are that young, we don’t always appreciate the richness of our multiculturalism, because we just want to ‘fit in’. It’s later in life that we realize how fortunate we where.

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  2. This is so true for many bi/tri lingual people. Due to where my parents were brought up, they spoke their mother tongue, Punjabi, the language taught at school, English, and the national language of the country, Swahili, as they were both born in Kenya.
    My brother and I grew up with a mish mash of all three, (Pun-gli-hili anyone?!) ne it took us an age to decipher why people outside of our whole family, didn’t understand certain things.., still, it hasn’t hindered our lives.. Enriched more like.

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  3. Oh, Maria, your post resonates so much with me. I’m French and live in the US where my children, but my oldest one, were born. Your son’s struggles and yours and your family’s at large echo my own. It is both a gift and a challenge to live between two languages and cultures. I regret not speaking Spanish but our mother languages are sisters! Best to you and I hope to see you on my blog where I also share about this and more. Cheers!

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    1. Hi Evelyn! Thanks for your comment. I’ll check your blog, I’m always interested in learning from people who live similar experiences. My son is now trying to learn French… he loves the language! Who know, maybe one day I’ll learn it too. By the way, you got the first part of my name right, but it’s Mariana. 🙂

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  4. In Texas. ALL regions everywhere have accents. There are regional differences in how words are said and which word is said to mean what. Most people in the US do not realize that while the Academy in Spain tries to hold a standard of Spanish usage, each country makes their Spanish a little different. Some kids here speak a Texmex Spanish which is very common, but their parents way when they travel home to visit relatives in MX the kids can’t communicate. Even kids from Houston make fun of the kids from the TX valley area about their accent. I have a friend from South America who went to a meeting to sign up school volunteers and she was shocked and sadden to be told by other moms there (from Mexico) that she didn’t speak the right Spanish and they were very rude to her. People are just odd.
    Kid from the south, Texas, or the west are often ridiculed when they move east. And that’s all English language.
    Your advice to smile was great. Not reacting is a good tool. Changing the subject – like asking the other person a question – is also a good way to get past that. (That’s a nice shirt/something, where did you get it? Want to play ball?) May end up with a friend. Communication is the object; language doesn’t matter. Kids can get that.
    Being bilingual will open many doors in the future. Kids who are bilingual (or multilingual here) do have larger vocabularies and often out perform monolingual students on state tests in language arts.
    Don’t stress over it, but converse in both languages when is seems right. Both people talking using multiple languages in the same conversation is fine. The tendency is to lean on the most familiar language. You have to make the effort to stretch the less familiar language. Spanish TV offers opportunities to hear other languages, too. Subtitles help if the conversation flows too fast to keep up sometimes. Work on standard Spanish syntax/word order which is what many kids from Spanish speaking homes here lose. Many can speak fairly standard Spanish, but are totally lost with reading and writing Spanish.
    Here in the US when/where I was growing up, if people said no one was really educated if they only spoke one language. High school/colleges required students learn languages. Really sad that changed.
    Spanish literature has such a rich sound and the writing is so beautiful.
    Don’t feel along out there. You’re certainly not. (And besides as a young adult, a slight accent can be so mysterious and alluring?)
    Smiles work in all languages. Sending a few of those your way.

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  5. Kids can be cruel to someone who is different. I came to Canada at age four and started school at six. Still didn’t know the language. I wasn’t the only one in the class but still all the kids picked on us and made fun because we were different. ❤

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    1. True, kids can be cruel at times, but it’s also up to grownups to model tolerance and compassion. That’s why it is so important to expose children to diverse cultures and languages from a young age.

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  6. I’m another one who really felt that your post resonated. I’m the other way round, moving from England to Spain, and yes I watched TV with subtitles, (I learned a lot from south American soaps eg Gata Salvaje) then graduated to without, read books and newspapers in Spanish, and talked to all my non-English-speaking neighbours. I knew I was improving when I could listen to the radio and speak on the phone, no subtitles, no facial expressions. And yes, dreamt in Spanish too.

    I live in Gibraltar mostly which is officially English-speaking, but locals speak llanito/español. And rather than Spanglish, we have Gibberish. My partner has an amazing accent, originally from Wales, he’s got some Australian in it, and speaks Spanish Andaluz from our pueblo. People comment on his accent, but not rudely, just that it’s odd. Most importantly, they understand him because they choose to.

    What I find odd here is that although locals are fluent in Spanish (more than I am) not all can read and write it, whereas I, the incomer, can. Spanish and English are two good languages to have, i learned French (and Latin) at school, but I’m really pleased to have learned Spanish in later years. The last time I was in France, I opened my mouth, and instead of French, out popped Spanish!

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