Bringing Up My Children in a Bilingual Home(school)
When I met my husband, I noticed immediately how he stumbled with the gender articles of Spanish. La mano was el mano to him. Kindly, I’d correct him. His parents wouldn’t. It’s been like this for years, yet I don’t give up. I know it can be a drudge to him, but he appreciates it nonetheless because among my family, as forgiving as they are, they can be purists when it comes to language. I remember our months of courtship at family dinners when I would count his mistakes as if they were numbers that weren’t lined up straight, missing their decimals. Years of conversation in Spanish with my mother and aunties has polished my husband’s Spanish to the degree that has impressed even his parents. Despite being born in Mexico and arriving into this country as an infant, he is more assimilated than I am regardless of our shared Spanish-speaking upbringing. Both his parents and my mother are from Mexico, albeit from different states, among other distinctions.
Our children are learning Spanish. It is our way of keeping alive a language that nursed us since birth. It would feel utterly treacherous to have our children speak only English. It would be foolish to bring them up unable to speak to their grandparents, unable to communicate profundamente with them at all, unable to carry a flavorful conversation while they make visits to see them. They aren’t learning Spanish from a book, as we didn’t either. They are learning it informally as it is spoken—naturally, organically—between hearts nurturing its nuance. As Maria Montessori said: “There is in every child a painstaking teacher, so skillful that he obtains identical results in all children in all parts of the world. The only language men ever speak perfectly is the one they learn in babyhood, when no one can teach them anything!”
This is not to say that children don’t learn anything. Quite the contrary. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.”
Language was the heart and soul of the world I knew as an infant, as my mother would put me to sleep with lullabies in Spanish, the only ones she knew, until Ms. Jaye in the daycare center would draw me near to her and call me the girl with the rosy cheeks, telling me how sweet I was. It was language—whether in English or Spanish, whether from a teacher or my mother—that rooted my understanding of the crucial identity of speaking two tongues. A bilingual friend of mine asked me when I had my first child if I was going to teach my child Spanish. Of course, I said. We agreed it was essential. She said, Cariños sound better in Spanish anyway, don’t they? Cariños. Endearments. We never want to withhold those. Sweet little things we say to children, to babies, to those we love.
As a family, we converse as intentionally as is possible in Spanish. Despite our best efforts, it is inevitable to speak English as a first language because as a homeschool family, our lessons are in English. It is a fine line, it seems. Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” I’m finding this truer because where does the schooling end and the home begin? The fusion of these two entities is our way of life without limits. When my eldest was in private school, he spoke English there and it was very easy to speak to him exclusively in Spanish at home, just as my mother did for me growing up. Schooling didn’t happen at home where Spanish only appeared. Now, there is no separation of school and home. It is all conflated. We are all one and therefore, we need to make it a purpose to speak Spanish at given moments in our day. We are two things at the same time: teacher and mom/ student and child. We are ambiguously identified, much like our languages are.
My husband tries not to make any mistakes as he speaks to the children in Spanish, lest they acquire his faulty article designations. He is more aware of his shortcomings, and I am too, although I use Spanish in the vernacular more expressively than he does, but he is catching on and picking up momentum. We exchange dichos—curious expressions in simile, idiom, or proverbial form—and I’ve taken note that my children use them too, a tremendous victory in my book, a sweet affirmation that our best efforts are yielding good fruit.
How can we forget the Spanish we know? How can we be expected to forget it when it is the language of our mothers, our aunties and uncles? How is it possible to detach from that past we never lived but only heard through oral storytelling? Frank Smith said, “One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.” I can only explain to my children now as they are little that being bilingual is a privilege in this 21st century. My mind likes to think it always was. But today as the globalization of education, culture, and literature takes a ubiquitous presence in our lives, I want my children to realize that indeed, a door opens for them along the way. They’re able to negotiate two cultures, two worlds, two dimensions of knowledge that not many encounter in their lifetime. With my children, my intentions to bring them up bilingual seem more decisive than trivial.
On sunny days when we take the homeschool out of doors, we scour the library bookshelf where all the Spanish storybooks are for children. I pick about a dozen by authors I’ve never heard of. At home, I nestle closely with my daughter and read her about four storybooks at a time. After every page, I ask her questions about what I just read, what we see on the pages, what we don’t see. She is listening attentively and understands what I’m saying, what I’m asking. She points to the balloon, to the bird, to the tree. I ask her to count how many dolls are seated at the table on one page and she counts a dozen. It’s trite, I know, to go through this process, but it’s so necessary for us both. I am learning new words in Spanish, a new dialect perhaps from Central America, or South America, a Spanish familiar yet new to us both.
At some point, my reading time with my daughter becomes what I long to do. It is what I look forward to. As I read with her, I magnify the importance of entering other worlds that a storybook can suggest, but linguistically speaking, it turns into an exercise in which she dips her ears into a poetic and lyrical sound that she has only heard in conversation. Spanish is not a new language for her, just as English isn’t. She slips and slides her thoughts and sights in English and Spanish with a very precise sensibility that is all she is aware of, that is harmonious and natural. There is no distinction, it seems, for her. Both are her languages. Both respond to her. Both are what she yearns for without hesitation.
And as I read these lyrical, short expressions of language, bursts of rhyme and repetition, I realize that I am also entering the world of a child. Reflected there in those storybooks is a magnitude of enchantment where tone, inflection, and perception coalesce into a tangible force. It is sublime in degree even, for someone like me who’s read a wide spectrum of writing. The trappings of bilingualism and writing creatively may have grown stale while I was in the academe, but they are sure to flourish surprisingly between the humble pages of a child’s storybook.
Eréndira Ramirez-Ortega’s fiction appears in West Branch, The Puritan, Day One, The Cossack Review, The Black Warrior Review, and others. Her poetry is featured in Origins Journal, The Sunlight Press, and Mothers Always Write. Her essays are featured in The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Faithfully Magazine, The Mudroom Blog, The Tishman Review, Cordella Magazine, Front Porch Commons: A Project of the [CLMP], and many others. She is writing a novel. Her work is forthcoming in L’Éphémère Review.