Raising Bilingual Teens & The 5 Stages of Grief

funny bilingual parenting comic by Latinaish.com

“Tenemos que hablar más …porque… tengo que pensar… por… cada… palabra,” my 15 year old son told me recently in halting Spanish as we walked around the international market. His Spanish is good but far from fluent.

Our 12 year old speaks even less than our 15 year old although he understands everything I say to him and voluntarily plays Club Penguin in Spanish, “just because.” He also switches to Spanish to get my attention. On a daily basis you can hear something like this in our house:

“Mommy, can I have a cookie?… Mommy… Hey, Mommy… Mamá, quiero una galleta.” — to which I finally answer him. Some parents do this on purpose so their children don’t speak English at home, but in my case, sometimes I’m just so focused on what I’m doing that I tune everyone out. Only the jolt of unexpected Spanish is what breaks my concentration.

Despite the fact that Spanish and Spanglish are still spoken on a daily basis in our household, we’ve begun to speak it less and less. I’ve said before that raising bilingual children “takes constant commitment and re-commitment” but it feels like we’ve been hitting pretty hard on the frequency and necessity of re-committing this past year.

You see, in my experience bilingual parenting, unlike most things you practice, does not get easier. In fact, I would argue that bilingual parenting only gets more and more difficult the older your children get.

Think about it – when your children are very young, one of the first questions they learn and repeat ad nauseam is, “What’s that?” … For parents raising bilingual children, even if the target language isn’t your native language, things start out pretty easy.

“What’s that?”
- Una manzana.
“What’s that?”
- El color verde.
“What’s that?”
- La luna.
“What’s that?”
- Un gato.

What a sense of accomplishment! You’re doing it! You’re really doing it! You’re raising a bilingual child!

Of course, the reality is that the older your child gets, the more complex his questions. Apple, green, moon, and cat are part of your vocabulary and now your child’s – no problem, but how do you answer:

“Where do babies come from?”
“What’s the difference between a Republican and a Democrat?”
“Why don’t birds get electrocuted when they sit on power lines?”
“How come it looks like the moon follows me when we drive in the car?”
“What’s endosymbiosis?”
“What exactly is a black hole?”
“What does ‘birth control’ mean?”
“Can you explain antidisestablishmentarianism?”
“If ‘X’ equals 32.4 and a train is traveling at 68 miles per hour…”

Nevermind answering those questions in Spanish – I may need Google’s help, (and a few aspirin) just to answer them in my native language! Apple, green, moon and cat will no longer be sufficient.

As a parent attempting to raise bilingual children, making mistakes along the way, and having setbacks, you often tell yourself, “It’s okay, there’s still time” – and yet, that time does run out, which is what you face as a parent of teenagers.

So, this is where we stand at the moment. We keep trying and will fight to the end to raise bilingual children, but I am at a point where I’m forced to accept that unless I drop them off in El Salvador for the next couple years, they most likely will not be native speaker fluent.

If your children are tweens or teens, you may be beginning to go through “the five stages of grief” if their Spanish isn’t as perfect as you had hoped. For me, it went something like this:

1. Denial – My kids are totally bilingual! They’re doing great!
2. Anger – Why aren’t they replying in Spanish! Whose fault is this?!
3. Bargaining – If they can just speak Spanish really well, not even perfectly, I’ll be happy.
4. Depression – This is my fault. I’m a failure as a parent.
5. Acceptance – I’ve done my best and will continue to try my hardest. All the effort has been worth it, and I’m okay with the result even if it falls short of perfection.

Just know that wherever you’re at on this bilingual parenting journey, you’re not alone, and like any other aspect of parenting, you’re not always going to get things exactly right.

Most importantly of all, don’t give up.

“There is no failure except in no longer trying.”
- Elbert Hubbard

Posted on January 29, 2014, in Corazón, Familia, humor, Language, niños, Spanglish and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 44 Comments.

  1. Tracey, I can hear you and understand you. I try at all times to speak Spanish to my kids, and still I feel that their brains are bilingual but their tongues need more exercise. Have you consider to send them to El Salvador to get immersed in the culture and really get that tongue going?

    • Immersion by living in a Spanish-speaking country is an excellent way to gain fluency and we would love to but it’s just not an option for us. Someone on Facebook asked the same & this was my response:

      We would love to but it just isn’t possible for multiple reasons, one of the most important being that our older son is in a competitive academic program and must complete all years of high school here to qualify for the college tuition assistance. If he leaves for even a short time, he’s out of the program – and the program has year round requirements.

      The boys picked up more Spanish quickly when we visited El Salvador for 2 weeks a few years ago. We wish we could afford those short visits at least once a year because it would certainly benefit them, but it’s just not possible on our budget.

  2. Always great to hear these stories to know we are not alone! I love the 5 stages of grief! Hilarious!

    • Thanks, Elle! Yes, it does feel good at least to know that there are others out there facing the same challenge. (Not that you want others to struggle but to know one isn’t alone.)

  3. Same here! Just to say that recently it was comforting to hear my 15 years old to say or accept “I unintentionally blurred words in Spanish sometimes”!!! When Spanish is one of the three languages he’s learning. Keep strong!

  4. You did your best. Now do the rest.:) They are amazing and intelligent boys and will do you proud, no matter what.

  5. Tracy, I really admire your perseverance. The good thing is that you have planted a seed in them, you’ve done what you can and kept family traditions, will will be passed on to their families. As a mom you feel you have to do your part and more! I totally understand what you feel :) I have a 14 year old and he is bilingual but is missing the grammar part, and that can be learned by reading in Spanish. I do what I can at home and keep Spanish as our primary language. We also watch foreign movies and also a very important part of our week is Skype with family back home and that forces all of us to speak more our native language. Good luck and I agree with not giving up.

    • I love that you Skype with family back home. Most of Carlos’s family is distant (emotionally) otherwise this is something I would have them do.

      Thanks for your kind words… I think the key words are “planting seeds” — Sometimes that’s all you can do and that’s okay.

      Abrazos!

  6. ursulars@aol.com

    Hi Tracy, You are so right about the “bilingual teens”… I was one of the lucky ones that had Abuelita around to teach my son Spanish. She did the babysitting and later the after school care for my only child Erik (now 32 yrs old). My household is not bilingual (husband not a Spanish speaker) but I for the most part tried to speak to my son in Spanish as much as I could. I have to say that my Mother was the key to my son’s spanish skills. Your sons will appreciate your efforts in teaching them Spanish as they grow up and see and experience the advantage of being bilingual. I know my son has seen the benefits of being bilingual not only with the “ladies” but salaries as well. Keep up the spanish lessons with your sons! Patience is the key…

    Saludos,

    Ursula Sevilla San Francisco Bay Area

    • Hola Ursula!

      You were so lucky to have your mother around. When my suegra lived with us, it was helpful to their Spanish, however even if she still lived with us, I don’t think they would be much more fluent than they already are since she didn’t talk with them that much. She didn’t often tell them lengthy stories or anything like that. She was more likely to just give short commands like, “Cipote, traigame las tijeras” … Anyway, as challenging as my relationship with my suegra is, I’m glad for the Spanish they picked up while she was here.

      I love that your son has found that being bilingual is helpful with the “ladies” jajaja… My older son sometimes asks me how to say or spell something in Spanish while he’s texting so hopefully he meets a girl that is bilingual that motivates him ;)

      Saludos!

  7. Tracy, you have given them a wonderful foundation in the language. It is almost impossible to give a child enough exposure to make them completely bilingual – even those that have excellent oral skills are usually lacking in the academic vocabulary that they have acquired in English. I sent each of my children to Mexico for a year when they were 15 to study in a school where there were no English speakers. They took full academic loads and returned home with complete, beautiful Spanish. They also all made friends that they have continued to visit at least once, and often several times a year. If there is any way to help your kids each spend a year in a Spanish-speaking country, it is definitely worth the effort.

  8. What a great article! My kids are approaching this age, but not there yet. Some very perceptive points and, I agree, your five stages of grief are very funny, but also right on!

  9. I speak Spanish to my small children but there are many cultural experiences that I had as a child in English that I would like to be able to share with them…in English. Sometimes I feel like in order to ensure they will be completely fluent I am sacrificing/prohibiting myself from sharing part of who I am with them. I am half Paraguayan and half American – if, in the future, I start to share my American side with them will I be diluting their Spanish speaking abilities? It seems silly but I really don´t want to read Harry Potter to my kids in Spanish!

    • That doesn’t seem silly to me at all – I understand completely! … How complicated. I hope you’re able to figure out a good balance.

      On a side note, when I read Harry Potter to my kids, I do a British accent for dialogue sometimes LOL… My British accent isn’t that great and I can’t even imagine the mental gymnastics I’d have to go through to do a British accent while speaking Spanish jajaja.

  10. Ay, Tracy, what an excellent post! Your 5 stages of grief are pure gold and all I can say is that you’ve done an amazing job by trying to ensure your kids were and continue to be exposed to both a language and a culture that’s not your own. I’m in awe of parents like you because I don’t think I’d been able to make such an important commitment. Te felicito de todo corazón!

    Although my kids are still way too little, things have started to shift a little in our home as my husband and I feel more comfortable talking to our oldest daughter in mostly Spanish with some English sprinkled here and there because him and I have always had a totally bilingual relationship. I guess we feel like she has a solid base in Spanish and speaking a little English to her won’t do any damage… but it’s impossible to know how things will be as she enters the teenage years… Ya veremos!

    • Rox! I love when you comment, amiga. Thanks for your kind words.

      It’ll be interesting to see what happens in your household as the kids grow up! If anyone has the right tools and knowledge to ensure fully bilingual children though, it’s you – so I’m sure they’ll do well.

      Abrazos! xoxo!

  11. This is fantastic! I just wrote about my trilingual tween on my blog too. I am still in denial :/ Your blog post made me laugh, I can relate all too well!

    • Thanks! I checked out your post. That’s so great that you guys went to see that play together and had a chance to brush off your French :)

  12. I love this post, Tracy. And smiled, as I’ve hit all those stages of grief with my kids. We have the new baby, you know, and I talk to her as much as I can in Spanish, and you are so right, all these words come flowing out….Dónde está el gato?, Mira la nieve!, blah, blah, blah. Wow, this bilingual stuff is so easy…

    What a great quote at the end, too. I’ll keep plugging along.

    • Keep it up, Susan! … Whatever the result, you’re raising a beautiful family. I have loved watching your kids grow up on your blog and they really are each fantastic in their own individual ways. xoxoxo to you all!

  13. Tracy, what a loving and sensitive post. Your commitment to your children shines through.

    I haven’t tried raising bilingual children but I know from friends and family how difficult it is to keep up the second language once English begins to assert his power. The people I know who have really succeeded treated it almost as a religion.

    To some extent their own interest and commitment will become a large factor: to answer in Spanish, to surf the web or read in Spanish, to watch Spanish television, to seek out Spanish-seeking friends, to press for time with Carlos’s family in El Salvador. You can give them the ball but it is theirs to run with or not.

    In either case you can keep in mind another adage: that there’s more than one way to be a good parent.

    • It really is like a religion (although compared to the people who succeed at raising fully fluent children, I guess we’re the type that show up at church infrequently and forget to say our prayers jajaja.)

      I agree that at this point, a lot of their future fluency really depends on their interest in the language which is why I’ve been very careful not to make them feel like it’s a chore or punishment. I want them to feel fondly for Spanish and have it tied to a lot of good memories and things – I think I’ve definitely succeeded in that.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Judy!

  14. Yes, yes, yes. I can relate. I was brought up this way. And, even though English is my first language, I can still call on my Spanish anytime. So hang in there!

  15. Awesome post. I’m already struggling and my girl is only 3! I can’t imagine what it will be like when she starts asking more involved questions… and like you, I would have to Google simply to learn the answer in English! lol

    • Thanks for the comment, Yazmin! I wish you a lot of luck. If you don’t already read SpanglishBaby.com, they have a lot of great ideas and resources that might help you. Your girl is 3 so you still have many years ahead!

  16. For those hard questions, reading Spanish articles about this subjects may help

    • I mean I read way better than I hear and speak, you can point out things while reading and give understanding to ur child, I didn’t start learning to after I am grown but with tu hijo/a they will retain and recall the Spanish and or English better since they’re younger, don’t worry bout pressure on the learning, the earlier the better and hard work pays off .. But yea Reading will be one of your best friends to help teach tu hujo/a

      • Thanks so much for the suggestion, King. I read to the kids daily (in English and Spanish) as they grew up but it was mostly fiction. Reading non-fiction would definitely help our vocabularies for discussion of technical and science matters, which are difficult topics at the moment. Excellent idea!

    • That’s actually a great idea. Finding an article in Spanish and reading that *to* your child instead of reading it and trying to paraphrase for your child…

  17. the key is having a non-english speaker in the household…we don’t, and I am too lazy and my wife is not native spanish speaker…my cousins lucked out in that they live with their parents and grandma spoke only spanish to their kids…yes, i do feel ashamed when she asks how come my kids don’t speak spanish…
    I would think it’s would be easier for your husband to speak to them in spanish since he’s a native speaker and take some of that burden off of you…

    • I agree, Jaime. My life would have been a million times easier using the OPOL (one parent, one language) method and just letting Carlos be the Spanish speaker with the boys – BUT – as usual, life is not that easy. I blogged about why Carlos didn’t speak much Spanish to the kids when they were young here: http://latinaish.com/2012/07/19/bilingual-siblings-disparities-in-fluency/

      These days, he does try to also speak Spanish when he notices me speaking Spanish to the kids, but we definitely need to be more consistent.

  18. My brother and I were brought up this way. It was “easy” because my parents didn’t really speak English and my dad forbade my brother and I to speak among ourselves in English at home. Once in high school, I took AP level Spanish courses that solidified my understanding at the grammar and critical thinking level — highly recommend those!

    These days though, I see my sister struggling to maintain her kids bilingual even though she and her husband use Spanish quite regularly. The kids talk to each other strictly in English and that is a big deterrent! Use it or lose it! Hasta a mi misma se me escapan de la mente ciertas cosas ahora que no hablo español diariamente!

    • I think that was a big thing for me, too… that I was only allowed to speak Spanish in the house when I was growing up. Here though, we do OPOL and I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle. I’m the only Spanish my 3 year old is exposed to and now she’s even switched from responding to me in Spanish to English.

      I’m seriously considering sending her to a Spanish daycare next year to get some linguistic support…

    • My older son took Spanish classes in school up until this year but he dropped it this year for various reasons. I wrote about it on another website here: http://www.mamiverse.com/bilingual-kid-hates-spanish-class-38799/

      “Use it or lose it” is so true. Even Carlos as a native speaker forgets words once in awhile at this point because the majority of his day is in English and has been for about 15 years. I also wrote about that here: http://latinaish.com/2012/04/03/not-fluent-in-any-language/

  19. Hi Tracy!
    I just LOVED this article! Thank you, thank you for your humour and your insight! I am currently raising a bilingual teen in Italy. His English is quite good, and he is (usually) happy to speak English with me, use it with friends here in Italy (and in the US and in other countries on Facebook and Twitter), and, of course, the rule in our house is that he can only watch TV if it is in English (I know, I know, we have it easy that way!). At the same time, however, I wanted to tell you about myself. I am actually a “failed bilingual”, in that my mother is from Hungary, and I … do not speak Hungarian! It’s a shame, but it is what it is. At the same time, however, I have often thought about how, in fact, even though my mother spoke mostly English to me and to my sister, just listening to her speak the language with my grandmother, simply hearing about that other culture, just knowing, while I was growing up, about another country and another language, even though I did not speak it, enriched my life enormously. True, Hungarian was a bust, which still bugs me (it’s on my list of things to do!). However, I studied French all through jr high, high school and university (and adored it), went abroad on an exchange program for a year and became fluent in Spanish, and now I have been living in Italy for the last 20 years and so I speak Italian. Oh – and my job? I teach English and do translations, and I ADORE my job!! So even though I really never did learn Hungarian, I am SURE that that early exposure to another language and to another culture made possible certain activities (resulting, perhaps, from an open mind for new cultures and, maybe, “an ear” for different languages) that have brought me a tremendous amount of joy throughout my life. I am sure that your son speaks MUCH more Spanish than I do Hungarian, and if he ever needs to perfect it even more, he will. You have already given him such a wonderful gift! You should be so proud, of him and also of yourself! He may not have thanked you for it yet, but, even if he is not aware of it yet, and regardless of the “degree” to which he is bilingual, his life is that much richer, every single day. Great job!!

    • Hi Karina!

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment and share your story! That is so awesome that you speak Spanish and Italian, (I studied Italian for a year but have forgotten most of it – I did love it though!) … I think you’re right that even though you regrettably didn’t pick up Hungarian, that it helped to wire your brain for language learning to hear it spoken throughout your childhood.

      Again, thanks so much for your comment and encouragement.

      Un abbraccio! ;)

  1. Pingback: A date with a trilingual tween & Molière | Trilingual Mama

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