Family dynamics are complicated in any household, but in a bilingual household, even more so. The addition or subtraction of one member can change everything – and I think that is what we’re getting ready to face in our family as our oldest son prepares to go off to college.
For the first time in our youngest son’s life, he will be the only child, (at least in respect to who will be physically living under our roof day-to-day.) This creates an interesting opportunity. With his brother around, he had a willing “accomplice” to speak English to. Despite my best efforts, having two people speaking English all the time has made it difficult for me (a native English speaker) to remain consistent with Spanish. It’s like when you go on a diet, but the rest of the family keeps eating cake and Doritos right in front of you — it makes sliding back into comfortable habits much more difficult to resist.
My prediction is that when my older son goes off to college, it will become easier to maintain a better balance of Spanish in the household because I’ve seen it happen before when he went off to summer camp. With only me to talk to (and Carlos usually at work), my younger son ends up speaking Spanish more easily without his brother around. Although I’ve long given up on a “100% Spanish only” household, I think a realistic expectation is that we could get closer to 50/50. Right now, unfortunately, I would say we’re down to 80/20, (Eighty percent English, twenty percent Spanish… no bueno.)
While I have my eye on this new possibility of fluency for our younger son, of course I’m also dealing with the emotional aspect of closing a chapter in our lives. There’s the expected mix of pride and bitter-sweetness at seeing our son grown up and ready to go off into the world, but there’s also a sort of ticking clock feeling, like our days together are numbered. Of course our days have always been numbered, but they felt infinite until only a handful remained, which is where we’re at right now. When time begins to run out, as a parent you start to think about all the things you’ve taught your child to prepare them, and all the things that somehow, regretfully, you never got around to teaching them.
I think we did well. We’ve taught him to be kind to others, confident, to make good choices, to be self-sufficient. We’ve taught him to be true to himself, to always ask questions, we’ve encouraged his passions. We’ve done everything we could to make sure he was well-rounded, well-educated, and knew his roots, but this “raising bilingual children” experiment which has gone on for the past 18 years is coming to an end. Was that part of our parenting successful?
The answer isn’t immediately apparent, but I’ve decided success isn’t always a pass/fail sort of thing.
While I do mourn the fact that native speaker fluency wasn’t in the cards for him, I can honestly say we gave it a good shot, and I’m content with the results. Maybe he can’t read and fully enjoy a novel in Spanish, and maybe he doesn’t dream in Spanish. Maybe he doesn’t always understand every single word, but if we were to drop him off alone in a Spanish-speaking city, I have no doubt he would be able to get about just fine on his own. He talks to his abuela on the phone without a problem, and he has lost count of how many Spanish-speaking customers he assisted at his part-time retail job. Do I wish he was fluent? Does he wish he was fluent? Of course.
But we’ve given him what we were able to, and like so much else in his life, the rest is now up to him.