Stubbornly Speaking Spanish

As most of you know, we’re trying to raise our boys to be English/Spanish bilingual. This is not an easy task for anyone, but even more challenging for me for a number of reasons.

#1. I’m not a native Spanish speaker and I still make mistakes.

#2. My husband, Carlos, only recently got “on board” with speaking Spanish to the kids. (He still isn’t consistent.)

#3. I wasn’t confident enough in my Spanish to speak it much to the boys when they were babies, so many lost opportunities there.

#4. We are not able to send the boys to a dual immersion school and we can’t afford to visit El Salvador often enough.

#5. We do not live in a community with a large Spanish-speaking population, nor are we surrounded by Spanish-speaking family.

Even with the odds stacked against us, I’ve been determined to raise the boys bilingual and I try to speak in Spanish to them as much as possible. Now, at ages 13 and 10, they comprehend spoken Spanish almost fluently, they speak conversationally, (though not on grade level with fluent speakers), and they can both read and write at a basic level.

I think this is a pretty common result of raising children bilingually — that they excel at comprehending spoken Spanish but aren’t quite fluent in other areas. I haven’t given up on them being 100% fluent, but that’s where we’re at right now.

While we were at the National Aquarium in Baltimore last weekend, the boys learned all kinds of ocean vocabulary. (Although we had to Google the word for “jellyfish” [medusa] – since neither Carlos or I could remember it.)

At one point while I was taking video of the sharks, my 10 year old son started peppering me with questions about when family would be getting together for his birthday. (His birthday had already passed and we had already celebrated, but he wanted another party.)

Evidence that we had already celebrated his birthday - a photo of the famous "mordida" tradition.

I later realized that my “ruined” video of the sharks, (because of all the talking), was actually something interesting. On the video you can hear how many of the conversations in our household go — with me stubbornly speaking Spanish even as my children respond in English. (Notice at the end how he mixes in Spanish without even realizing it!)

I just wanted to share this video to encourage other parents raising bilingual children who may feel frustrated or discouraged. Keep stubbornly speaking Spanish, (or whatever other language it is you’re teaching your kids.)

Vale la pena. It’s worth it.


  1. Tracy you are right… keep at it….Look I am the baby of the family and by the time I started speaking my older brother and sister who used to be monolingual were totally English only so of course I didn’t speak it at all. My parents always spoke and still do speak to each other in Spanish and my mom mostly only spoke to us in Spanish and we responded in English and my dad only spoke English to us. When I was about 12 my dad decided to “force” me to learn to read, write and speak Spanish so he bought me a subscription to “Tu” magazine – a teen magazine all in Spanish. I would sit on the couch with him as I read out loud and then I had to translate everything I read into English…then he would give me a dollar! LOL I got rich and bonded with my dad! Pretty good deal to me! Anyway, long story short that started my love affair with all things Spanish…books, magazines, music, television etc. Just don’t give up because they will one day thank you.

    • Dinita – I love the picture you paint. I’m imagining you sitting down to read “Tú” magazine with your father. What a great memory! — And you got a dollar on top of it! … I actually have a copy of that magazine which I picked up in El Salvador out of curiosity. They still make it :)

  2. I am the same way. I have 100% fluency in understanding but struggle big time with speaking. I get very nervous but recently I was told that it doesn’t matter if I make mistakes, the point is to have a conversation and as long as the other person can understand me then it’s all good. That has helped a lot. Also my mother pointing out other family members who don’t speak very good Spanish but do it anyway. :)

  3. “I have enough money for a globo” This is how I talk to my mom and she doesn’t even speak Spanish! Haha. I would say you’re definitely more advanced than I am, but I’m coming along and I only speak in Spanish to my husband. The other day my mom asked me what I was cooking and I said “Frijo…..beans.” My husband got a big kick out of it. I also tend to throw in ‘pero’ instead of just saying ‘and’, but my mom has caught on to that now and I don’t have to correct myself anymore haha.

    • LOL – I do the same thing with accidentally mixing in Spanish when I’m speaking to Anglo family. Reminds me of the episode of I Love Lucy when Ricky is translating back and forth between Lucy and his parents. At one point he accidentally speaks English to his parents. (This was not actually written into the script! He really messed up in real life, but they kept it since it was in front of a live audience and it was so funny.)

  4. Sending the kids to El Salvador for summer holidays could be a possible solution. If they don’t have you to translate for them they’ll have to bring their passive Spanish to life:) For sure.

  5. Good for you! My husband and I are also trying to raise our son bilingually. He is only 19 months but already I am trying very hard to make sure he knows just as many words in Spanish as he does in English. He spends a lot of time with my parents (who don’t speak Spanish) so it gets hard there, but he’s getting great exposure to both languages. The hard thing is that I don’t even realize how much my husband and I speak different languages to eachother. When I get tired I speak to him in English and he answers in Spanish and we flip flop back and forth without realizing it. My goal is that when we are with my son it’s consistent Spanish…easier said than done but we are trying! I’m glad you keep working at it. It would be much easier to throw in the towel, but like everyone else says, they will thank you later!

    • That’s good that you’ve at least recognized when you’re prone to speaking English. I also am more likely to speak English when tired or in a bad mood. LOL.

  6. Thank you for the encouragement & support! It gives me hope that your boys are speaking (& writing!) Spanish even though you started with them with Spanish when they were a little older. We will also stubbornly speak Spanish to our kids although it’ll be an upward battle. Gracias Traisy y bien hecho niños (y padres)!!

  7. Thanks for the encouragement. I always NEED it. Teaching my kids Spanish is so hard since I’m the only single one who speaks it, and not always with confidence!

  8. I used to teach in a university level study abroad program here in Chile and had quite a few students who had grown up in mixed language households but didn’t feel they handled the language well. The big advantage they had though, was the foundation and accumulated knowledge so that once they finally did soltar la lengua, they were speaking pretty fluently in no time at all. I suspect that this will happen with your kids too. Once they find themselves in a situation where they need to speak Spanish, it will all come flooding out at once!
    Felicidades on your efforts… y ¡Suerte!

  9. My son is not even 2 years old and I can see how fast he picks up English from tv or at the playground even though we speak 98% Spanish to him. I find myself repeating over and over again just one Spanish word and then he hears a word in English he’ll repeat it like is the easiest word in the whole world.

    I think you are doing a great job and that one day they’ll thank you for sticking to it…

    • Wow – he’s still so young. Hopefully you can find a play group for him in Spanish so he doesn’t associate cool/fun/friends/playing with only English?


  10. You are so awesome to teach them both. I fight with my little ones all though time. I start the day good with Spanish and somewhere mid morning I am screwing it up. Growing up at home we spoke Spanglish (even with my parent’s broken English). My siblings and I spoke English all the time. I am ashamed to say I took spanish in school to learn how to write it and still have issues with accent marks and “LL” and “Y”. Mira just today me pregunto mi hija que como se dice chicken nugget en español no tengo idea (I’m suppose to google it but you see what I’m doing LOL) Anyways I guess what I’m saying is good job even the native spanish speakers struggle this with their kids ;) :)

    • We do our best, amiga! The effort is what matters and the more you work at it, the easier it becomes.

      As for “chicken nuggets” — I’ve heard people simply call them “nuggets” (sounds like “new-gets” LOL) — but I think they are also called “trocitos de pollo.”

      That’s great that your daughter is asking how to say things! Keep her curious and engaged – that’s awesome :)

  11. It is so perfect that you are stubborn and sticking with it! They will be grateful in the end. Do they have friends their age to speak spanish with? If you’re open to a suggestions, I have two, which my family does and loves.
    First, put your kids in a spanish-speaking soccer league if you can. They’ll meet and play with other bilingual kids, and have a reason to speak spanish. And you’ll meet their moms, and probably have delicious food at the games!
    Second, volunteer as a family, or at least you and the kids. We have volunteered almost my whole life with immigrant organizations that help newcomers adjust. Given the Salvadoreño population of DC, I bet there are even ones specific to that country. My family and I, including the kids, volunteer every week in an immigrant organization’s community center, which is designed to connect families who feel very isolated upon arrival. It doesn’t cost us anything but time! This has awesome benefits, allowing us to help others who very much need it, and connecting us with new friends. This helped our kids understand what our family went through to immigrate. It improved their spanish, and they gained friends who share our language and traditions. We have had many opportunities to make tamales, go to misa, or celebrate el dia de los reyes with friends we have met at the center. It has been an invaluable way to teach kids to care for others. Maybe it would would help them “own” speaking spanish, as something they do because its part of them, not because someone makes them!

    • Graciela – these are really excellent tips – thanks for sharing them with me. I’m always open to suggestions.

      I really like the idea of volunteering to help immigrant families new to the area.

    • And how about you, Sue? Your English is perfect! Any thought to raising the baby on the way to be bilingual?


  12. I love your attitude, Tracy. I used to beat myself up over my less-than-perfect Spanish, but no more. We all do what we can with what we have. Some days more. Some days less. Pasito a pasito, verdad? You set a great example. Than you for pulling me out of my language shell, amiga. Un abrazo. BTW, Voté por ti. I’ll keep my fingers, toes, arms, legs crossed. : )

    • Ya sabes que no gané but thanks to you and everyone else who voted for me and who had los deditos cruzados :) I appreciate the love, amiga and it’s people like you that make a special community of really cool people with a passion for language/culture rather than just a blog where I talk about myself. Gracias!

  13. Tracy, you are great! I am teaching about issues in bilingual education today and your post will be featured in class since it is a perfect example of some of the challenges of raising a bilingual speaker. Many of my students will be able to relate as well. I have been using your blog as a point of reference for students to refer to about various Latin@ issues of culture, language, or anything else when they have had free time.

    Tracy, eres genial! Estoy enseñando sobre cuestiones de educación bilingüe hoy y tu post se presentará en clase, ya que es un perfecto ejemplo de algunos de los desafíos de criar un hablante bilingüe. Muchos de mis estudiantes podrán relatar tambíen. He estado usando su blog como un punto de referencia para los estudiantes a referirse sobre diversos cuestiones de cultura, idioma o cualquier otra cosa cuando ellos han tenido tiempo libre.


    • Hola José – thanks so much for this comment, (y en español también!) … How exciting to know my video will be shown in your class. I hope your students take something away from it. I so appreciate you spreading the word about … That means a lot to me and your students are siempre bienvenidos!


  14. Hello again Tracy!

    It’s been a while but I’m still around. We don’t have kids yet but plan to have them soon and want them to be bilingual. My wife only speaks English but understands Spanish. I am working with her to get a better handle on it. We both agree that it is essential for the kids to know both languages.


    P.S.: I love using my embroidered handkerchief.

    • Luis! It’s been forever! How have you been, amigo?

      Excited to hear you’re planning to have some kids soon! Wishing you luck.

      So happy you still have the handkerchief :) Saludos!

  15. I love this video!! I didn’t even notice the sharks, by the way. My kids are exactly the same…only the baby (2) will speak a lot of spanish. Mi hija can understand anything (I used to be able to talk about her to my husband in spanish, but not anymore :)
    Speaking is definitely harder…they’ll put in nouns here and there, just like your son.

    I love your dedication to them being bilingual. I’ve definitely slacked off with the older ones since they started school…but you’ve motivated me once again! Gracias!

    Get those globos, no es una fiesta sin globos :)

    • It’s a sad/happy day when you lose the ability to talk about your kids in Spanish without them understanding. jajajaja

      I slack off every now and then with my dedication to speaking Spanish with them but that’s like anything else in my life. LOL. Attention span is no good ;) — The important thing is that when you realize, “Hey, I’ve been speaking English with them all day” – that you jump back on track immediately.

      As for the globos – I didn’t buy any – I already spent way too much on his present. LOL.

    • When I was in middle school I knew some Latino kids who claimed to understand Spanish but couldn’t speak it. As an Anglo kid, I couldn’t understand how this was at all possible… I understand now since, even though I can speak Spanish, understanding is easier for me than speaking now too.

      When you listen, it’s more passive. You’re less likely to make a mistake, (by misunderstanding), because even if you don’t get a word here or there, in context, you understand the message… When one speaks, it’s a much more active thing with the possibility to make many more mistakes because it’s your responsibility to find each word and convey it, (and do it quickly!) The self-consciousness that occurs can leave one tongue-tied and not even willing to try.

      This is why I’m careful about not correcting my sons too much when they do decide to speak Spanish.

      Suerte, amiga! We can do it!

  16. Yesterday was my nephew’s 8th birthday, and I called him and he wouldn’t talk to me in Spanish. He understood most things I said, but replied only in English. And he lived in Peru till he was 5 or 6!!! Its no piece of cake to raise a bilingual kid. Good luck!

  17. Tracy don’t give up! I won’t tell us is not hard but if you and your husband are on board you should decide on some rules, that in the end could benefit everybody.
    When I moved here 7 seven years ago, my son was 5 years old and didn’t speak English. We practically jumped “el charco” and we were going to make the best of it. First I asked for extra homework for my son after school. We also discovered the local library, something totally new for us because as you know the library in El Salvador is in Downtown and you are lucky if you get to it dressed (I’m not kidding). There was no going back I had to help him and show him the way. I must tell you I felt helpless some day, to he so down and teary-eyes, when he told me nobody in school talked to him.
    So I got him I library card and got some books , flashcards and videos from “Dora” . We got able at home with only English channels. I practically got him immersed in the language. It helped that I was already Bilingual, and was willing to do everything I could to let him feel had had my full support. The first six months were really hard, I had to be there for him at schools and I just saw his face every time he had to go to ESL (now ELL) he didn’t like it and got bored.
    What made him really happy was going to the story times at the library, so I got him more involved in library activities. Suddenly he started to read, and I told he that he was going to read in both languages, because we were living here but he should NEVER forget where he came from. We also kept communication with our families at home. We kept speaking Spanish at our home and made it a rule. We also told my son that we was a very special, because he had the best of both worlds; appreciate both cultures and that keeping both languages would put him in and advantage of many people, who wish they news two languages. I think that gave him the courage to make a extra effort in school, and by 2nd grade he jumped to the gifted and talented group of grade class and from then on nobody stopped him.
    I loved seeing people faces when as a family we spoke Spanish n public places and then when somebody talked to us, we switched to English, Ohh people looked at us surprised, like ” How can they do that?”
    As a Mom that was a huge step in my life. Family support was really important.
    So to all the moms out there thinking of giving up, I say NO WAY, make an effort to teach your kids their roots and be there for them, because in the long way it’ll be worth it!

  18. I can so identify with this post. I am the only one that speaks Spanish at home and I speak it to my daughters all day long and of course the one that is old enough to talk speaks mostly in English and I get so frustrated. I want to give up, but not really. I don’t have any Spanish-speaking family around and I learned Spanish first, but was not educated in Spanish. So many years without me speaking Spanish daily that I lost a lot of my vocabulary. In a way, it is because of my daughters that Spanish is back in my life. I’m not giving up.

    • I definitely wouldn’t speak Spanish as well as I do if it wasn’t for the kids motivating me to lead the way. It’s mutually beneficial :)


  19. Yes!!!! It is so worth it! Great video and now I do not feel so alone! I try and do my part. and my son still answers me in English. But, the fact that he understands his father and I is a major success in my book. I’m going to keep working on it. It’s posts like this that continue to give me inspiration! (oh, and i love the way you speak spanish!)

  20. Fabulous! I don’t have time to read all the comments, so I’m pretty sure I won’t say anything new. It is a great video and you are a really wonderful mom! There is no doubt that your boys are going to speak Spanish very well. I have no doubt that withing a few years they will be thanking you for conversation like this. Keep at it!

  21. So, how did Carlos come to be on board? Did you convince him or did something happen to convince him?
    I’m the one in the family who isn’t a native Spanish speaker and I’m the one constantly saying “español por favor”.
    I know my husband believes the importance of this, maybe if only because he trusts me. But when he is tired or our son puts up any resistance, he caves. Then the rest of his family don’t seem to get it at all no matter what I say. Since I work full time, he is with them more than with me. So all day my son is hearing “trae tus chus” and I swear he does not understand me when I say “trae tus zapatos”. (Just one of a thousand examples.)
    Ironic and frustrating.
    I’ve decided it’s just like back in the day people were in a big hurry to tear down old houses and buildings & put up modern things in the name of progress. Today, what is the value of a plain-jane 1960’s tract home compared to a lovingly-restored Victorian? Yet everybody back then seemed to think tearing everything down was totally the way to go.
    Maybe it’s just easier for me to see the real treasures of their unique culture and traditions, coming from a childhood of Kraft macaroni and cheese.
    But that’s my philosophical explanation– seriously, can you put your finger on anything that helped Carlos feel motivated about this too?

    I love Margaret’s post. How encouraging!!!

    • Beth, I’m not sure there was any singular “a-ha!” moment for Carlos. It’s been very gradual. I think one of my big mistakes is that I wasted years trying to convince Carlos with the same arguments that would convince me, (i.e. “we should give them roots in their culture”.) — Those kind of romantic ideals don’t appeal to Carlos in the same way. If you asked him why he wants the kids to be bilingual, he would probably put at the top of his list: Job opportunities/financial success.

      So find out what reason will most motivate your husband to fully participate in raising your son bilingual.

      As I said, Carlos still doesn’t speak as much Spanish to them as I do. I think he feels awkward about it because he doesn’t do it enough. (I know I felt awkward at first, too.) – He’s a man of little patience so I think he just see’s English as more efficient since he knows the kids will understand him 100% the very first time.

      I like your analogy and I think you’re definitely onto something. Maybe if we were the ones who had immigrated to our husband’s native country and we were being badgered to teach our children English, we would find it rather a dull idea!

      Keep at it, amiga. That has been my method – when I say to be stubborn, I mean it. I’m sure we look quite ridiculous in public – me speaking Spanish while Carlos and the boys speak English much of the time – but regardless of what they do, I just plow ahead with Spanish — More and more, my family is joining me but it’s been a long journey and we’re still not even halfway there.

  22. That is so great that you are stubbornly speaking Spanish! Keep it up, and I will too (speaking as another non-native speaker)

  23. I totally identify with this post, this is my family and our situation except Urdu is the goal language. Oh, I DID speak to my girls in Urdu when they were very small (which felt weird for me, but we were living in a Hindi-Urdu dominant environment in Dubai), and they had a Hindi speaking (pretty much same language) babysitter, so Urdu was their first language. When we visited the US from Dubai for the first time when my oldest was at an age when she could communicate, she couldn’t understand English, which was really hard on my parents. We moved the US in 2010 and lived with my parents for a while and during that time my girls completely stopped responding in Urdu. Now we just talk like you guys in the video. That totally sounds like us. I am also realistic about their level of potential fluency, but as long as my girls have had some foundation, I will feel we have achieved something. If they want to pursue Urdu more when they are older, that will be their own decision.

  24. Tracy, good for you for sticking to it. My husband is a native speaker of French and didn’t want to speak French with our children. They studied French in school and now, as adults, are unhappy that they lost the opportunity to learn the language as children. Your children will thank you one day.

  25. Hola!
    I am so happy to know that there is someone just like me ! I have a 2 year old son and a 6 week old son. I want them to be fluent in spanish but i dont speak fluently (yet!) Aand my family wont help me out! Not even with easy words like “gracias” !!! Your post is reassurance it can be done!Is your husband at least Hispanic? Mine isnt!!

    • Hi Raquel! … My husband is Latino (from El Salvador), but he didn’t really speak Spanish to the kids and still doesn’t very much. It is very difficult but it is possible. I highly recommend you check out all the resources at — It’s a great community for raising bilingual children, no matter what your circumstances are!

      Buena suerte! (Good luck!)

  26. My boys are 11 and 14 and even though I am not a native Greek speaker (born and raised in London with Greek-Cypriot roots) I was determined my boys learn Greek. Third generation kids have it a bit harder because many parents, like me, are conscious of the fact that they don’t speak the language fluently and don’t won’t to teach their kids incorrectly. My sons started Greek school a couple of years ago and the teachers encourage me to speak Greek to them and not care if I don’t say everything correctly. Communicating is what counts. They can now read and write Greek and understand almost everything – speaking is where it’s tough; they respond in English. I used to do that when I was a kid; my parents spoke to me in Greek and I replied in English. I love watching them grow in the Greek culture, and it doesn’t make them any less British.

  27. I just discovered you yesterday and I’m so glad. Soy salvadoreña. Soy tía y me sentí muy incómoda hablarles a los niños en español porque la lengua en que pienso es ingles (I don’t even know if I said that right). I also find english to be easier to pronounce for a kid just starting to talk. I don’t know how Carlos can ignore his “thinking language”! Or how you were able to ignore yours for the good of the children. It really does feel so unnatural. Anyway, I love the blog, your writing, and this video, too!

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