Last week I spoke English to my 4-year-old son. I told him to hurry up and get in the car. He stopped, dead in his tracks. Looked at me with a look of worry and said in Spanish, “Mami, we only speak Spanish.”
I was doing this to test him. I responded in English again, “But I speak English too. I talk to Papi — you hear me every day.” He just kept staring. Quiet. Suddenly I noticed he had tears in his eyes. I felt terrible and I switched back to Spanish and hugging him I said, “It’s ok, M. You don’t like when I speak English to you?” And he softly whispered in Spanish, “No, Mami. When you speak English to me, it’s like you are not my mami. Your voice is different.”
I have only ever spoken Spanish to M. Since the day he was born. Every story, every milestone, every special mother-son moment we have ever had has been in Spanish — including when I discipline him. It is our connection; it is what our relationship is based on, and to suddenly change now just confused him. And I will do the same with our daughter, Little L. We are truly a bilingual and multicultural home mixing our U.S. and Chilean traditions.
My husband and I speak English, so he does know I speak the language. I speak Spanish to M and Little L, and M speaks English with my husband.
Let me make it clear — my son speaks English just as well as Spanish. Despite what people may think, I am not hindering his language skills, or delaying his English-speaking abilities. In fact, I am helping him be a more effective decision maker — he has to decide in a second what language to use and with whom.
But it’s not just about language. It’s about living and experiencing another culture. I also come from a bicultural home; I was born in Chile, where we obviously speak Spanish, but my mother is German-Chilean and many of my grandparents’ customs, foods, traditions, and language were part of my upbringing.
It is extremely important for my husband and I to not only continue to raise our babies to be bilingual individuals, but to teach them about other languages and cultures.
My husband lived in Japan for 10 years during his childhood, and despite going to the American school, he lived and breathed Japanese culture. His parents made sure to teach him about the country they were living in, ate the food, and in his case, learned the language. Although he has forgotten most of it, he can still read characters and he has never denied that Japanese culture helped shape him to the man he is today.
It’s very easy to say we want our children to be exposed to other cultures, but it is our responsibility to allow them to experience those cultures. We are fortunate to live in a country that has great cultural variety, and it’s important that we tap into it.