Bilingual Siblings & Disparities in Fluency
Today I read a post called “Pocho studies” on Lotería Chicana. I started to leave a comment but by the time I finished it, I realized the comment was long enough to stand alone as a blog post, so here I am.
Cindy of Lotería Chicana writes about how her Spanish fluency is different from that of her siblings. (I encourage you to click through – it’s worth reading and the photos make it all the more special.) This is a really fascinating topic because most people would assume that bilingual children raised in the same household would be equally fluent, but most parents raising bilingual children know this isn’t true.
Just like children raised in the same household may end up with different eating habits, religious beliefs, or athletic abilities – the same goes for language. I imagine there are an endless number of possibilities in each family depending on all kinds of circumstances – many of which are only apparent in hindsight.
Here is the comment I started to leave but which I’m pasting here instead.
I was raised in an English only Anglo home but married a Salvadoran. It’s always been my goal to raise our children to be bilingual. This was something I had my heart set on before they were born, before I married my husband, Carlos. It was a desire borne out a love of language and the knowledge that I would want to share that with my future children because of all the beauty and opportunity the gift of bilingualism can bring.
At some point my idealism was hit with a major dose of reality.
Our older son will soon be 14 and his little brother is 10 – While I have tried to raise them to be bilingual, the journey has been long, inconsistent and not nearly as easy as I had imagined. Their language abilities are both so different that it sometimes feels like they weren’t raised in the same household — in some ways, they weren’t.
When we had our first son we were both really young. My Spanish was very basic and I lacked confidence. I never said more than a couple words here and there in Spanish to the baby. My hope had been that my husband would speak Spanish to the baby, but Carlos was struggling with English and our focus at the time was his fluency – not our child’s. During the first year of our first son’s life, we lived with my (English-speaking) family. This was good for Carlos’s English but meant a very English dominant environment for our son. Once we moved out, we still spoke English most of the time since Carlos needed the practice. Most of the Spanish our son heard the first couple years was when my husband was on the phone to El Salvador or when he watched TV, (mostly Spanish-language news.)
When I had my second son, life was very different. Our household had become a place where Spanish was very frequently spoken and heard throughout the day. (Our older son was 3 or 4 at this point.) My mother-in-law had moved in with us and she didn’t speak English. My new baby, myself and my older son were now immersed in an environment with 2 native Spanish-speakers, (one of whom we had no choice but to communicate with in Spanish.)
As my skills and confidence in the language grew, I tried to speak and read to the kids more in Spanish and encouraged my husband to do so as well. Still, I didn’t use Spanish with them much of the time because English had become my “code language” – a safe haven to speak to my husband and children in, a place where my mother-in-law couldn’t understand me, (and I desperately needed that privacy.)
In 2010, realizing that my kids weren’t on grade level with their Spanish from the limited interactions with their live-in grandmother, I decided to speak Spanish to them almost full time. Since then I’ve slacked off here and there but there has definitely been a much more concentrated effort on my part to ensure they’re bilingual. Seeing how much more comfortable the kids are in Spanish, my husband has joined the effort. It comes naturally now – not the awkward way it once was, but it took a long time to get here. (Coincidentally, their grandmother moved out a year ago, so speaking Spanish to them has become even more vital.)
At this point both boys understand spoken Spanish very well but prefer to answer in English or Spanglish. My older son, when he does speak Spanish, has a great vocabulary, but the accent is very “gringo.” His reading and writing was not very good but it’s grown by leaps and bounds the past year because he’s studying Spanish as his “foreign language” at school – having the basic foundation made it an easy “A” for him even though he started the class a year ahead of his peers and was given “native speaker” work.
Our younger son, perhaps because he heard native speakers since infancy, has a fantastic natural accent in Spanish. (He can pronounce the “rr” but his older brother can’t.) Our younger son’s vocabulary is probably not as big as his older brother’s though, and I think maybe it’s because he’s the “consentido” and his older brother always does things for him, including translating things he doesn’t understand. His ease at reading written Spanish aloud is probably better than his older brother though, because I read books in Spanish to him more than I did to my older son.
Another interesting development occurred this past week. Our older son is away at science camp and our younger son is home with me all day. Suddenly my younger son has begun to respond to me in Spanish when we’re alone together… Yesterday he came to me and completely unprompted, offered me half of his snack saying, “Mamá, ¿Quieres compartir?” (and “compartir” is a word I’ve never even heard him use before.)
I’ve come to accept that there will be disparities in their fluency – that one may be better at one skill than the other, just as they have their own unique talents when it comes to sports or art, but it’s harder to get over the feeling that I failed them. I couldn’t have spoken Spanish to them any earlier than I did, and I tried to convince my husband to do it but, like many immigrant parents, he worried more about their English fluency until it was “too late.”
I continue to speak Spanish to them, determined that they will be as bilingual as possible, but knowing that the ship has sailed as far as them being native speaker fluent, makes me incredibly sad sometimes.
What are your experiences with your bilingual siblings or your bilingual children? How are their skills different?