Spanish Summer Mutiny

The other day I began “El verano de español”. My youngest son said, “We’re starting el día de español already?”

I corrected him, “Verano, not día. Día is only a day. We’re doing it the whole summer. Verano means summer.”

“Oh, Mommy!” he said, “The whole summer?!”

Within minutes he was acting more enthusiastic though, opening the freezer and telling me, “Te quiero una popsicle.” (“I love you, a popsicle” … he meant “Quiero una paleta” = I want a popsicle.)

But it isn’t just the kids who need work. Old habits die hard. When I was in Miami surrounded by the “tiki tiki” of Latinas, I fell into the rhythm, but here at home, it’s different. I think it’s natural for a mother to want to communicate with her children in her native tongue and making demands of them in Spanish strips me of some authority. Not only do I sound less certain of my words, but the kids, while they manage to extract the meaning of what I’ve said, they don’t react to it with the same sense of urgency.

If I tell the kids to “behave” in English, there is an unspoken but known threat in the nuance of it. “Portanse bien” feels fluffy in my mouth – a flashing lighthouse in the fog warning of sharp rocks, instead of a bold red stop sign. My motherly threats in Spanish don’t give fair notice of the discipline to come if my words are not heeded. Perhaps in time they’ll learn, and I will too.

I’m reading a book right now and some of the text jumped off the page at me because I related so much to it. Here one of the characters, a native Spanish speaker, talks about how her words lose meaning in English. (Of course, for me, it’s vice versa.)

“No,” I said, and again, the English words failed me. In Spanish, I could make a man tremble, force a woman to bite her tongue. But not in English…The words didn’t sound angry like they would have in Spanish, didn’t poke through the air with the same fire or conviction…”

-The Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse

The first day of “El verano de español” was the hardest for me. When the kids misbehaved, I stood there like a stuttering idiot, the words danced past my tongue, almost within grasp, before disappearing, like playful dolphins breaking the surface, smiling teasingly and sinking back into the depths of the ocean. That night, as if my brain short circuited, I dreamed the entire night in Spanish, which is rare. I typically have occasional dreams in Spanish, but not an entire night’s worth.

The next day at the grocery store, as I shucked corn with the boys, I chatted with them in Spanish, (though they replied to me in 90% English.) At one point in the conversation, my oldest son couldn’t understand what I was saying and became frustrated. Throwing down a corn cob he said, (loud enough for nearby families to hear), “Stop speaking Spanish! I can’t understand you! Can’t you just speak English!?”

¡Qué vergüenza! My cheeks reddened to match the color of the nearby apples. Full of embarrassment and anger, this time, my Spanish did not fail me.

“Inglés? Tú quieres inglés?… Mira, voy a darte inglés cuando regresamos a la casa y estoy dandote un chancletazo! ¿Cómo crees que vas a hablar con tu mamá así en frente de todo el mundo? Nunca me hables así, me entiendes?”

Believe me, he understood that.


  1. Gosh! That’s how I feel when I speak Spanish too. I find it difficult to express my self fluidly. Although it was my first language, I stopped using it when my parents divorced. Through the years I have looked for opportunities to exercise it.

    I love your el verano de Español! I’m going to try to adopt that en mi hogar.

    Funny you mention the book [The Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse]. A friend has asked if I was interested in listening to the author speak next week. I haven’t read the book yet but I’m will!!

    • @ Catalina – A few people have said they’re going to try doing this with their children this summer, and I said everyone can feel free to update us on their progress here in comments on my blog, or leave a link to your blog. I’d love to have others suffering/having fun along with me ;)

      If you have a chance to see Brando Skyhorse speak, I’d take it! I wish I could go. I’m almost finished with the book and love it. I’ll be reviewing it on my blog soon!

    • @ Heartinhand – Sorry!

      Rough translation of:

      “Inglés? Tú quieres inglés?… Mira, voy a darte inglés cuando regresamos a la casa y estoy dandote un chancletazo! ¿Cómo crees que vas a hablar con tu mamá así en frente de todo el mundo? Nunca me hables así, me entiendes?”


      English? You want English? Look, I’ll give you English when we get back home and I give you a spanking. How do you think you’re going to speak to your mother like that in front of everybody? Never talk to me like that, do you understand?


    • @ Carrie – I think I just need to practice because I have heard Spanish used while disciplining and I know it’s far from fluffy, except in my own mouth!

  2. haha that’ll do it! I think with time it will get easier like you said and with support from your husband even more so.

    Good luck! I am looking forward to hearing more about it.

    • @ Grace – Thanks! My husband is taking my lead and speaking more Spanish with them, so we’ll see what happens!

  3. Hahahaha! Yep, we (my firstborn and I) have had that exact conversation, word for word I’m sure. It is quite frustrating to have them ranging from indifferent to indignant against something you and I take so personal. My little one probably gets a small portion of what my older daughter got, in terms of exposure, that I fear she will never pick it up. To her, it is a game, something to do for fun with me, like patty-cake, or coloring. Not exactly the fluency I yearn for. With time though, huh? And yes, I am QUITE fluent when I am angry….or drinking, lol. I have “disciplined” so often in Spanish in the effort of protecting her privacy, that I am afraid she attaches a negative conatation with Spanish. Pero, tenemos que seguir.

    • @ humincat – I just keep in mind, some day my oldest son will thank me during his presidential inauguration speech ;) … The younger one will probably use me as endlessly amusing material when he makes it as a stand up comedian though ;)

  4. I love this. I can’t believe how you do it!! I wouldn’t do it in english I think. Cause I feel just like you feel with the spanish but in english. I know it will be great for them, just be patient and great things will come!!! I believe no matter what age your kids are it doesn’t hurt to practice the other language, they’ll appreciate it so much when they are older. Bravo!

  5. You crack me up, Tracy!! That’s so awesome! So here’s a chismosa kind of question: how do they communicate with “la suegra”? Just wondering….

    Love reading your posts! Good luck with your verano de español, you’re doing a great thing for your boys :)

  6. jajajajajajj yo estaré igual en unos años cuando mi niño de 2 años hable bien español, le enseñaré inglés.

    Un día en el pediatra, vi una señora (mexicana) que le decía a su niña (mexicana) “Valeria, tell me the truth” y me pareció tan fuera de lugar, que mi esposo y yo bromeamos con eso. Pero tal vez esté teniendo su “verano de inglés” y en unos años, la gente se va a reir cuando me vea hablándole inglés a mi niño jajjajajaj En tu caso es diferente porque son una familia bicultural. Don’t get me wrong ;)

  7. OMGoodness I am LMNO. You said it girl. When the time comes they understand. Of course I also love the advantage of being in a predominantly Anglo town where they can’t understand when Mami se esta enojando, y que si se esta enojando. Jajaja.

    But now seriously, it is hard-even for a native speaker (me)- to raise their kids bilingual. Lo importante- to not give up. Right amiga?

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