Tuesday, July 23, 2013

14 Years in the Making - Keeping Spanish Alive

Every year in July, I cannot help but feel a bit nostalgic about my niece and how much she has grown. Her birthday is at the end of the month. I still remember very clearly the day she was born and how small she was. She knows that with every happy birthday comes the known "I still remember the day you were born." This year she is going to high-school. Time flies indeed!

Ivanna and I back in 2009
She is 14 Today!

Talking to her a few weeks back, I asked her about her classes and how she felt about high-school. Off course, the conversation took place in Spanish and was a very pleasant one...but I had to bring up (yet again) the fact that it was such as struggle for her to want to continue to perfect her Spanish skills - both orally and in writing.

She was born in Ecuador and attended the first few years of schooling there as well. So, her Spanish was pretty decent. When my sister and her family moved to the United States, I remember asking my sister about Ivanna's Spanish and what she was going to do to keep it 'alive.' She sounded confident because Ivanna's foundational skills were already there. At the time, I was living in Florida and I would visit them at least once a year.

Every visit, I clearly remember, was fun and entertaining as I loved spending time with them. Yet every visit was marked by the constant arguments between Ivanna and Jennifer (my sister). My sister would speak to Ivanna in Spanish, Ivanna would then reply in English. My sister would tell her that she was not going to reply to her unless Ivanna would answer in Spanish. My sister would then again speak in Spanish, Ivanna would say some words - switch between English and Spanish, and so on. It was TORTURE!

Off course, I had to step in an offer the much appreciated 'advise' (well...not really wanted nor appreciated). I would tell my sister that she had to be stricter, that she had to set her foot down and NOT give in. Jennifer was a teacher too, so she could handle it right? Well, sort off.

Years passed, and my visits continued (their discussions did not deter me from coming back). Threats, arguments, punishment, you name it....my sister had tried it all.

Last week I had the opportunity to spend some really great quality time with my sister (oh! I moved to California in 2009). Jennifer was sharing how proud she was of Ivanna because she would be taking an advanced Spanish class in high-school. As a matter of fact, in the past year, Ivanna's interest for perfecting her Spanish had increased according to my sister. Ivanna would ask more questions about the language - especially writing since she knew that orally she could communicate well, but lacked writing fluency (she hates 'tildes').

Further in our discussion, I mentioned to my sister that this time Ivanna was not just 'told' how important it was to learn another language - this time she KNEW first hand that the better she would perform in her Spanish placement test for high-school the more advanced the class she would be able to take. We talked about motivation and how it can re-shape our previous beliefs. When I told my sister that it was pretty traumatic to come for vacation and see them in a heated argument because of the language, she laughed and told me that she did what had to be done.

While I am not a parent, I wonder what parents have to do or have done to ensure their children become fluent in more than one language. When there there is not any 'real' motivation unless they are at an age where they understand the 'gift' of speaking more than one, what had/can be done?

I am happy my sister's story has a very happy ending - Ivanna is now not only proud but also very interested in continuing learning Spanish. Which bring me to the question: What am I going to do to ensure my child (once I have one) learns Spanish? Is there a silver bullet?
Ivanna, My Sister, and I


  1. Great story Kelly! I have 3 bilingual boys (under 6) no arguements yet...but you assure me that there is hope if we stay with it!!!! Thank you for this post.

    1. Thank you so much Betty for stopping by my blog!

  2. Oh my! I can sooo relate to your sister. I'm also a teacher. I'm also bilingual. I have 2 daughters (8 and 6) who I struggle with to speak Spanish. I also value languages and my culture.

    I don't know what the bilingual silver bullet is. I was certain that my daughters would be bilingual since hubby (Spain) and I (Mexican/Puerto Rican) are fluent in both languages. My eldest (now 8) spoke Spanish beautifully and could speak/understand English with others outside of the home. She started school (pre-k) and her English improved and I was thrilled that her Spanish kept up, too! She'd come home from school, back to Spanish with hubby, little sister, and me.

    But then..........

    Little sister, at age 3, started preschool (before that she was at a home daycare with a Spanish caretaker). She acquired English at rapid pace. However, she'd get home, speak Spanish with mami and papi, but English to her sister. Their interactions were in English! All the time! And we also began to interact more in English with them at home (all this against my rule about SPANISH AT HOME!).

    What I have today are 2 very bright girls who understand spoken Spanish, but have a difficult time speaking it because of their limited Spanish vocabulary. The oldest can handle speaking much better than the youngest, but she still struggles. this saddens me, not just because of my love of Spanish, but because when we visit Spain our family can't see them for who they truly are because their vocabulary is limited and their interactions with the family are, too! They don't see my girls' personalities because what they see are 2 little quiet girls. The girls know enough to 'survive' -- "quiero comer, tengo hambre, a donde vamos hoy, me duele, te quiero mucho etc...." but they can't go further than that and it makes me sad.

    I also get told, "Wow, what a shame that you, being a bilingual teacher, aren't getting the girls to speak more Spanish." Thanks, people... I already tell myself that, don't need you to do it, too!

    it's rough... and if I could I'd rewind and be more adamant about "en la casa solo Español", but really, who knows if that would have worked. I'm dealing with my reality as best I can. I continue speaking Spanish to the girls and providing them the vocabulary they need through dialogue, media, and literature. It's not easy, as they are constantly bombarded with English. But hubby and I are doing our best, and we have been happy knowing that the girls are aware of the importance of knowing their family's language and they are proud of being able to do what their friends can't ... speak 2 languages, even if it is a limited right now. We just got back from Spain 3 days ago and since then they have been reminding us "Español!". And for now, that's what we'll continue to do ---keeping Español alive as best we can.

    1. Oh my...dejavu indeed!

      I admire your perseverance, and from what I have personally witnessed as long as you keep at it, it will have good results in the end. I am sure there are times you want to just give up and let them speak what they want, but try reading a book aloud together (maybe before bed). Sometimes the rich language in literature and story line can keep even the most reluctant speakers engaged. I have a post coming in spanglishbaby.com coming soon where I review a book that I am thinking will be PERFECT for your girls.

      Again, the best of luck and do not give up. They will thank you....eventually.


  3. What a wonderful story! I am sure your sister is a great teacher, too! LOL!
    Sistercita - little sis - thank you for focusing on my struggles as a parent/teacher at home. It has been a long journey, but consistency and determination through the process is what has made both of us – Ivanna and I – feel victorious. As a parent, I never gave in, and as a teacher I will not. I have to share with you that I will be Ivanna’s teacher for her Spanish for Heritage Learners class. I am thrilled about it, but Ivanna knows that TORTURE is about to begin. However, I know that at the end of the road, she will feel proud of her roots and language. I will keep you post it.


    Jennifer ; )

  4. And that's how it's done!
    The reality is that it doesn't need to be a fight. I do believe that just by being persistent and constant in having our interaction with them be in Spanish it's a lot for the receptive language to settle in. Then, it's about creating moments where they will need to actually use the language to "survive!" Jaja!
    Travel is obviously the best, but not accessible to all.
    Making them proud of their cultural heritage and giving them motivations to speak the language are other ways.
    I doubt you'll have a problem when the time comes!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...