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?


  1. Bueno, en mi caso como profesores que somos, ambos padres de mi hijo bilingüe lo traíamos a Lima, Perú todos los tres meses de verano en EEUU, pero invierno en Lima. El detalle que oir el idioma no iba a mejorar sus habilidades lecto-escritoras, de ahí que iba al colegio los 3 meses.
    A la edad de 13 años hicimos una mudanza de país y vinimos a Lima por 3 años: los últimos años del colegio secundario (High school) el cambio le favoreció en sus habilidades, aunque estaba en un colegio bilingüe, los alumnos eran mayoritariamente hispanohablantes, así como algunos de los cursos los llevaba exclusivamente en Español como Historia del Perú, Geografía, Español, etc.
    En fin también tenía que dar los exámenes de SAT en EEUU, pues la experiencia acaba en 3 años y luego volvería para estudiar en EEUU. los resultados de nuevo fueron expectaculares: Reading 800, Math 680, Writing 670.
    La diferencia radica en que fue bilingüe y bicultural a la vez, no solo de oir el idioma, sino también de leerlo, escribirlo, vivirlo y sentirlo.

  2. What a great post! I think your experience points to one of the most difficult parts of wanting to raise kids with two languages, and of parenting in general. That is, that there are so many factors beyond our control. Our situations, who we are, and who our kids are, are always changing. As you point out, their experiences are different and that has to impact their language skills, in both languages. All we can do is our best at any one moment and keep in mind that the long run is really, really long. It is their whole lifetime and most of the choices about how they learn and use the language will be theirs.

    I know that my kids do have different skills (in both languages). At this point, I’m not sure the differences in Spanish are bigger than the differences in English. Talking to them I doubt anyone would say that one spoke better than another, but my youngest reads and writes in all her languages much more than my other two kids do. My oldest has lived in Peru for years, and her English is pretty strange sometimes.

    Your post reminds us that everyone’s situation is different. I was lucky in that my kids had very uneventful childhoods – they were healthy and happy and even though life wasn’t perfect, it could have been a lot more complicated. I had energy left over to put into language and we were able to travel. I know that if things had been different, I would not have insisted on their speaking Spanish above all else. Their emotional needs and our relationship have always been most important – I compromised of course, and I would have compromised a lot more if it had been best for them. It worked out well, but I am aware that a lot of that was good fortune and that it could have worked out very differently.

    Spanish is so clearly a central part of your boys’ lives and identity. Their skills may differ, but my guess is that neither of them can even imagine not having the language and the culture. What a gift. You should be proud!

    • Thanks, Jennifer. Fluent or not, the language and culture really is an integral part of their lives and identities – it’s something so interwoven in every fiber of who they are, our household and family. I haven’t done too badly – I appreciate the reminder.

  3. When I was 16 I was an exchange student in the US, and let me tell you that after my first 3 months there without anyone at all speaking my native languages, I started forgetting them.
    There was no Skype back then and calls across the Atlantic were expensive so when I finally got to talk to my Mom, I didn’t seem so fluent and had a very hard time remembering some words. I will never forget – too weird of a feeling…
    Although on average boys are worse with languages than most girls are, children are super receptive to learning. It is high time for you to surround them with Spanish everywhere you can to get better results.
    Language = environment. The more you need a language for some basic things, the better you’ll be at it. Any summer camps with native Spanish speakers nearby?

    Am dreaming of bilingual kids, too:))

    • They are very much surrounded by it – we’re doing our best :) … No Spanish summer camps here unfortunately, (which is why I started “Spanish Summer” at our house a few years ago. Speaking to the kids in Spanish actually started as just a summer thing, but then when summer ended, I kept going.)

  4. Tracy, don’t be sad or think that the ship has sailed.

    When clients have only spoken to me on the phone and later meet me or see a photo, they often tell me they didn’t realize I’m not Mexican. But I know this is because our conversations were limited. The truth is I’ll never be at native speaker level because at some point it is not about technical grammar constructions. Grammar stuff you can memorize, and I have done it. I was past 35 years old when I learned how to roll my Rs but it only took a bit of practice. Just try to catch Mel Gibson sounding Australian when you watch Lethal Weapon. What’s hard for an outsider coming in is the heart and soul of a language, the culture that is inherently part of it, the phrase you can’t translate at all but you understand it. Your boys are insiders. That is what they get from being still a child when language exposure is happening. And you are working hard to expose them not just to the words but to the living language.

    Like many things you are teaching your children, the fruits might not come to bear until much later. In my job I know bilingual or multilingual people who are brothers/sisters or cousins. The ones who try and avoid using the language whenever possible, it circles back on them and they are not comfortable in it when they absolutely have to use it. The ones who try, they get appreciation, and confidence, and their skills grow. They go for pleasure or business to their parents’ home country and blend right in.

    Don’t think of native-speaker fluent as if all your children will be literature professors. Even with just one language, some really intelligent and productive people send some atrocious emails!

  5. I def. see the difference between my brothers and I. My oldest brother, 30, and myself, 25, speak Spanish with great fluency and we write Spanish with very few grammatical errors… (specially when putting in the tilde) Reading, is natural to us too. Spanish was all we knew because we’d spend majority of time with Mom. My dad had learned after a few years being in the states alone, (antes que “nos mando a traer”) Once the 2 of us learned English in school and a few things from Dad, Mom wasn’t far behind in learning either. Speaking, Writing and Reading.

    After we all learned, it was almost all we spoke unless other family members were around. Which is why my 2 younger brothers, 24 and 18, ability of speaking Spanish, is much weaker. Their writing skills are worse. But the understanding of Spanish is perfect. Even though they don’t speak it very well, they don’t have the “gringo” accent, and they know how to roll R’s.

    What surprises me de mi younger brothers is that they can read Spanish, though they can’t write it or speak it correctly. Which I think, come hand in hand, no? It’s weird.LoL

    Just a side note, me dio risita when you said that you would speak English con Carlos for privacy when suegra was around….. because my older brother and i would do the same with our Mom. LOL. My brother and I would say silly things like “I’m not going to eat the vegetables, but don’t tell Mom” or “I told Mom I finished my homework so she’d let me watch T.V. Don’t tell her that I actually didn’t do it” LOL Mi mami decia, “Ustedes piensan que no los entiendo?” Hahahaha. But at certain point she didn’t… and little by little she started responding to our side conversations between my brothers and I. We would laugh and say “Mom, you understood that?!?!?”

    Y sabes, now that I am older and thinking about having a family of my own; I am devoted to making sure my children will speak Spanish, my native language, and Turkish, my hubby’s native language. Y pues, English will come naturally from school. My Turkish speaking abilities, are not strong because I can’t get the right conjugation of verbs, tneses and things like that.(The most important stuff) But my understanding is good. So, cuando los suegros me preguntan, “What were you doing when we called last night?” Instead of saying “I was jogging around our block” I say “I run” hahahahahaha.

    • Your kids are going to be trilingual! Love the story about speaking in “code” with your brother LOL

      Also love the story about talking to your Turkish suegros. LOL I said a lot of dumb sounding things over the years as I tried to learn Spanish to my Suegra. I remember when I was Carlos’s girlfriend and I’d get left alone with her sometimes, (I’d come to visit Carlos at his brother’s apartment but he wouldn’t be home from work yet – it would be just me and Suegra.) … She would go on and on and on and I’d smile and nod to be polite and then she’d ask if I understood after like 10 minutes. I understood that she asked me if I understood – that much I knew. ROFL. I’d say “un poco” and she’d look like she wanted to kill herself jajajaja

  6. Hey por lo menos estas tratando! When i was pregnant with my son I wanted him to be bilingual (like mommy). You would be surprised how many of us are out there that come from two Latino parents but are not fluent in Spanish. I always said I didn’t want my kids to be one of those kids. La verdad es dificil enseñales! I am ashamed to say mine (now 4 and 6 yrs ) understand spanish well but can not respond a full sentence in spanish. :( it kills me!! I am trying as well and pray that they will one day wake up hablando español. Good luck and let’s try not to give up :)

  7. Aquí es el comentario que puse en el blog de Cindy:

    I’m the third of four, my oldest sister is 8 years older than I. My mom spoke only spanish at home when my older sisters were little, but when they got to school, they really struggled to keep up in english. So, by the time me and my younger brother were learning to talk, my mom had an all-english rule at home. We still learned and spoke spanish with grandparents, neighbors, etc, but not at home and not as well as my older sisters until much later, maybe middle or high school. Now we’re all completely bilingual, but it took lots of work and lots of time in mexico for my brother and I to catch up. Now my husband and I are expecting our first and our going to work really hard to make sure s/he’s bilingual. It’s funny, my fiancé grew up with the opposite, speaking spanish perfectly but he still struggles with english. I think a lot depends on resources available to parents. For example, my mom work 60+ hours a week and had 4 kids. She didn’t realistically have enough time to work on two languages with us to make sure we mastered both. Same with my husband, his mom didn’t speak english well and worked all the time, so she really didn’t have to means to help him in english.

  8. My husband is of Mexican descent and learned Spanish at home and I am Anglo and learned Spanish at 19 in Mexico. We are both near native fluent but have our areas where we lack fluency. With our son, who is now 8, we were both very consistent when he was little with only speaking to him in Spanish and he also was spoken to in Spanish at daycare. A few things changed that along the way, my mom (English only) moved into our house when he was 2, the usual of kindergarten (no Spanish immersion options) and as my son gets older and plays video games, sports, etc. my husband is speaking to him more in English because his own vocabulary is stronger in that language. Our daughter is 5 and she also had exclusive Spanish until 2 and then English came along via my mom and daycare. While she is consistent in how she speaks with me (Spanish), she hears her brother using English with her father and does the same. My son has the stronger vocabulary in Spanish plus can read and write, but my daughter has different interests than my son so hopefully we can use that to keep her Spanish expanding. And to make the mix more interesting, we have a newborn in the house and I have explained to both children that they need to speak to him in Spanish so he can be fluent too and not feel left out :-) . . . which is good because now I’m bringing back out the “rondas infantiles” and all the nursery rhymes the older two grew up on as we could all probably use a “refresher” course! So while they are more fluent than in some ways I could have imagined, I will continue to emphasize the Spanish so they can continue to grow as I know they can. And to stay strong during the rough patches!

  9. […] Bilingual Fluency & Disparities in Fluency from — Our friend Tracy López writes about the differences in her children’s levels of fluency in Spanish. I’ve always found this topic super interesting because in my own household growing up my siblings and I all had different levels of fluency in Spanish because we all got the States at different ages and chose completely different assimilation routes. My children are still too little for me to analyze the differences in their bilingualism. But it’s something I’m definitely interested in watching as they get older. […]

  10. This is completely fascinating to read (both your post and the comments). I just got back from a 3-week trip to Costa Rica to visit my family. My sisters and I are the only ones in the entire family who aren’t fluent in Spanish because my mom wasn’t Latin. She didn’t encourage my dad to speak to us in Spanish and so he didn’t. It is the one thing I would change about myself if I could- fluency in Spanish!

    I’ve had to learn on my own and I’m still not fluent but I’m learning more every day. My kids are little sponges and while in CR they REALLY enjoyed learning Spanish. I was amazed that my 5 year old would play with his cousins (technically my second cousins) and would learn things on his own (his fave: quiero jugar fútbol.) :)

    I’m determined to get them to my level of fluency but I know it’s gonna be a hard fight, especially as I continue to learn the language myself. Most of my CR relatives that know English learned from TV and music so that will be a part of their learning too, as well as simple conversations and perhaps some much structured lessons.

    I’m intrigued that you didn’t learn Spanish til you were an adult as it gives me hope! I understand about 70-80% of all that’s said to me but my hardest is speaking it back. I’m even pretty good typing in Facebook chat. What things helped you the most as you learned? Did you have a hard time learning the “rr”? I struggle with that too!

    • Hi Melissa! Thanks for joining the conversation. To answer your questions: My introduction to Spanish, (besides a few words on Sesame Street as a toddler LOL), was in the classroom. At 12 or 13 years old I took Spanish as my “foreign language” requirement. I stuck with it for a few years but this gave me a very good foundation and understanding of spelling, grammar, pronunciation, etc. – nothing more. I couldn’t understand spoken Spanish unless it was very slow and very basic. In other words, I couldn’t understand real people talking normally. Spanish-speakers had to slow down and use basic phrases if they wanted to engage in conversation with me. If people spoke normally I may catch a word here and there and piece together the general gist of what was being said. My speaking was even worse than my comprehension. Again, very basic. To give you an example, the first words I said to my husband were “Necesitas ayuda?” — I worked at a store and he was a customer. I always greeted Spanish-speaking customers this way so I would have a chance to practice. I also listened to Spanish language music a lot and would read the lyrics while I listened.

      That was 15 years ago. At this point I am proficient, not fluent and far from perfect – but I’m confident I can handle any situation in Spanish because I have the words to make myself understood even if what I say isn’t necessarily the best way or the correct way. If I don’t know the name of an object, I can describe it and how it’s used, for example.

      The things that have helped me improve and get to where I am with the language include:

      * Being married to a native speaker – We actually rarely spoke Spanish to each other until the past couple years. For the first 10 years of our marriage, we spoke English because my husband, as the bread winner needing to provide for the family here in the United States, it was critical for him to learn it. He has learned it so well that he completed a college course in English last year so I’m very proud of him. (But like me in Spanish, he still makes multiple mistakes in English each day.) After 10 years, English became habit so it was hard to switch. It felt REALLY weird and fake to speak Spanish to each other at first – like actors on a stage – but I asked him to let me have my chance to become fluent, and he obliged. Now we switch freely back and forth between Spanish and English and neither feels awkward. Having him to speak Spanish with has helped me improve a lot.

      * Having an extra native speaker in the house for 10 years, (my mother-in-law.)

      * Listening to music in Spanish and taking the time to look up the lyrics, even singing along, memorizing songs, etc.

      * Reading to the kids in Spanish. You would think children’s books are too easy to learn anything from, but some of them are REALLY hard. LOL. I’ve learned a lot of vocabulary and verb tenses from them. Like “Si le das un panqueque a una cerdita” (If you give a pig a pancake) – In English, such a simple book, but I learned a lot from reading the Spanish version so many times LOL.

      * Reading Spanish poetry

      * Communicating with friends online in Spanish

      * Watching TV and films in Spanish, (with and without subtitles)

      * Using workbooks designed for English speakers learning Spanish

      … Getting the double “rr” did take me many years to do it consistently and naturally – try tongue twisters, rap music in Spanish and reading aloud! :)

      I wish you a lot of luck. Hope this was helpful.

      • Thanks for all the tips and perspective! I’m interested what you think makes someone fluent versus proficient. I throw the term “fluent” out there probably a little too loosely. For example, one of my cousins in CR uses English daily at work (works for major US company) and we can talk about nearly everything. She has an accent and sometimes can’t remember what a word is, but she talks at a good pace and has proper grammar most of the time. I call her fluent but maybe it’s more like proficient!

        Also, you’re so right about kids’ books. We have a few in Spanish and I’m like, crap, I should know this word. I listen to some Spanish music but vow to listen to more. I studied Spanish for 8 years (4 in HS, 4 in college) PLUS studied abroad. I know grammar and the school-type things– but it’s quite amazing how little you can speak learning via a textbook. I can read Spanish pretty well, but pulling words out of my head myself (versus seeing a sentence and knowing the meaning) is tough.

        All that to say, I’m a work in progress and I’ll take your tips into account!

  11. Usually its the younger siblings who are not fluent in the families native language because their sole educators of language are their older siblings, whom by some time start using only english as they are going to school. It is a lament of alot of parents, even if they communicate at home in their native language, the older sibling brings their english home and speaks to their younger siblings in that language. Not much you can do about that, its the way of the world. Since your household is culturally mixed, you should not feel like you failed. It is expected.

    • Thank you – yes, I noticed that in most of these situations, it’s the older kids who speak more fluently. It makes sense for the reason you stated.

  12. I’m going to give you another perspective as a bilingual teacher. I taught at a school where the instruction was 50% Spanish and 50% English. I didn’t teach gringo children, either. Most of our students were first generation Latinos. Their first language was Spanish. Their parents ONLY knew Spanish. And, from kindergarten, these kids had received half their schooling in SPANISH.
    And yet…. getting our students to speak in Spanish during Spanish time was like pulling teeth! They overwhelmingly preferred English. They overwhelmingly felt comfortable in English. They didn’t feel very confident in Spanish even though they had been taught to read, write and speak in academic Spanish. They learned math, science, social studies in Spanish. They read Spanish literature. We lived in heavily Latino city where Spanish was on every street corner. Yet, English was still their language.
    Why does this happen, we, the teaching staff, asked ourselves over and over again. We felt like we were failing them in our mission to develop bicultural, biliterate students.
    But the reality is that English is the language of the U.S. English is what is on TV. English is what their idols (singers, rappers, President Obama) speak. The language of prestige is English. Kids raised in America naturally gravitate towards English, no matter how much Spanish they get in the home or even at school.
    They’ll still be proud of their roots. And one day they’ll come back to Spanish with love in their hearts. But, in their adolescence, English will be their language.

    • Wow, thanks for this perspective, Lidi. It’s frustrating and sad that this occurs but it makes me feel a lot better about my efforts and the results in my own children.

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