Bilingual Parenting Ain’t for the Weak-hearted

My husband and I want our daughter to be exposed to several languages now that she is young. Too much research supports this, but it’s also a personal necessity; half her family speaks English only, and the other half speaks only Spanish, and still others who my husband grew up with speak only French.

So, from the moment she was born, and even before, we have been speaking to her in both Spanish and English. We read to her, sing to her and do as much as we can in both languages. Of course, she is immersed in English with my parents for most of the day and gets Spanish only from my husband who actually, unfortunately, spends the least amount of time with her given that he works and goes to school. This has made our One Parent One Language approach rather problematic, since Spanish is completely minimized in her life. At this point, it’s mostly sung to her since he gets home in time most nights to just help put her to bed.

Plus, it can be a little strange — whenever he is with her, he needs to speak Spanish, so do I translate between him and my parents? Does he speak to me and I respond only in English? All these questions weigh on us.

I have said for a while that for my daughter to be bilingual and bicultural, I need to become the same, which is easier said than done. I also worry about the impact of hearing a non-native speaker; plus, if I am essentially code-switching, even if I do it at specific times, am I going to confuse her? I haven’t done enough research on this specifically except that I do know being able to codeswitch is a real strength. I’m just not sure how great it is as an unintentional teacher. So, for now, I’m sticking with speaking English to her and Spanish to my husband in her presence, which is to help him speak to someone other than her in his language.

The approach of One Parent One Language sounds good on paper, but it’s far trickier in practice.



7 thoughts on “Bilingual Parenting Ain’t for the Weak-hearted

  1. What is code-switching?

    And also, do you feel your Spanish is solid enough (it seems it is, to me) that you can sometimes speak Spanish to the baby while your husband isn’t around the baby?

  2. Yes, I consider myself bilingual but I don’t consider myself fluent enough to speak to her in all the ways I would in English. I sing to her the Spanish nursery rhymes I’m learning, and read to her, etc., but I don’t feel it’s enough. I see how she acts when she hears her father speaking Spanish or French on the phone (which means he is speaking faster and having an actual conversation than when he speaks and plays with her), which tells me she is aware already of the differences.

  3. This is a really interesting post. I grew up in Thailand and always thought I’d teach my kids Thai, but when the time came, it had been 10 years since I’d lived in Thailand, my Thai was a little rusty, and I was scared to speak it to them being a non-native Thai speaker!

    I don’t have any answers, but you’ve raised a lot of important questions about bilingual, bicultural families! Good luck.

  4. Pingback: No Dad! I Speak Spanish! | I want 2 speak spanish

  5. Pingback: raising a bilingual baby « An American in Tuscany

  6. I have the same problem you mentioned at my home. My inlaws do not speak english, and even though I speak english to my child, I have to speak italian with my inlaws (who live in the same house) or we can’t communicate. The upshot is baby hears me speaking a good bit of the day in italian too.

  7. So true! I feel lucky that we’ve been able to spend a good portion of my eldest daughter’s 4 years living in Japan with my in-laws – which while sometimes tricky to negotiate for me (I’m not fluent in Japanese and when has living been ones in-laws been “easy”?) has certainly boosted her exposure to Japanese. Since my husband and I speak English to one another and I’m the primary caregiver, when we spend time in the US the Japanese she gets exposed to is much more minimal. But we’ve been very lucky to have things work out this way and I think it really shows in her fluency in both languages. And I totally get that not everyone can make the same choices (even we will have a more US centric and English centric) arrangement in the near future. Good luck !

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