The Bilingual Household: Changing Family Dynamics and The End of an Era

On my older son's future college campus.

On my older son’s future college campus.

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.

Conversations at Casa López – Part 9


Here we go – my family’s most recent “bilingual moments” and funny conversations. (Be sure to share your recent funny conversations in comments!)

Telivision/Boxing Match: …the new champion, de Sinaloa México, Gilberto “El Zurdo” Rámirez!

Tracy: Wow, he’s deaf?

[Confusing the word “sordo” which means deaf, and “zurdo” which means southpaw/left-handed]

Tracy: You see? That bird has the same beak as that one. They’re both Cardinals but that one is a female, the red ones are males.

Carlos: Beak?

Tracy: Beak, pico.

Carlos: But that’s how you pronounce it? Like Vick-Vaporu?

Television/Chavo: Es que la Chilindrina me preguntó ¿con que “v”?
Television/Doña Florinda: Pos, con los ojos.
Television/Chavo: Sí, pero, ¿de vaca o de burro?

Tracy and Carlos: [laughing]

14 year old son: What’s funny?

Tracy: Chavo wanted to know whether you write “bicicleta” with a “v” or a “b” because they sound the same in Spanish and they call them “big b” and “little v”, or you can say “b de burro, o v de vaca” – so he asked Doña Florinda “Con que v?” which sounds like “What do you use to see?” and when Doña Florinda said “ojos”, Chavo said “cow eyes or donkey eyes?”

14 year old son: [blank stare]

Tracy: It kind of gets lost in translation.

Tracy: El Salvador is north of the equator, right?

Carlos: Right.

Tracy: Wait, so which country does the equator pass through?

Carlos: [amused expression] Ecuador.

Tracy: Oh my God…I feel stupid now.

17 year old son: What’re you watching?

Carlos: It’s about Billy the Kid.

17 year old son: [sits down to watch]

Carlos: Didn’t you study him in school?

17 year old son: I was more into Jesse James.

Carlos: Is he a gang bang, too?

Tracy: We’re almost out of bird feed again.

Carlos: Again?!

Tracy: It’s those big, black birds – the Grackles. I think they’re eating it all. I read that they’ve been known to devastate crops, they come down as a huge flock and eat everything.

Carlos: Ohhhh, those are the ones that do that?

Tracy: Do they do that in El Salvador, too?

Carlos: I don’t know.

Tracy: How do you know about them then?

Carlos: There was an episode of Pink Panther…

(Here’s the episode of Pink Panther if anyone wants to watch. I had to look it up after that conversation, and then watching it made it even funnier.)

Ask Latinaish: How Can I Learn Spanish?

Image source: Kasaa

Image source: Kasaa

Over the years I’ve received hundreds of emails from people who have stumbled upon and, recognizing a kindred spirit, reached out to me. Sometimes they want a recipe for sopa de mondongo, or to know the meaning of a word in Salvadoran slang, and sometimes they just want to say thank you for something they found useful on my blog. Sometimes the words I receive make my day, and sometimes they keep me up at night. Sometimes the person needs mother-in-law advice, or bicultural relationship advice, sometimes the person emailing tells me they know no one else who understands their situation and they hope I can help. I’m always humbled that complete strangers trust me with their very deepest hurts. I always respond from my corazón and give the very best guidance that I can. Sometimes the person will correspond with me for awhile and I see the situation resolved, but most of the time I never find out what ended up happening.

As much as I love receiving these emails, I realize that for each one I receive there are many more people out there who may have the same question, or a similar situation, and could be helped by my reply, so I’m going to start publishing some of my responses as “Ask Latinaish” posts. I will of course always keep the identity of the person asking the question and the details of their situation completely anonymous.

The first question I’ll be answering here is:

How can I learn Spanish?


I most often get this question from gringas like myself who have married into the culture and want to raise bilingual children. Either she has had limited experience in the language, a few classes in high school, or has just learned a thing here and there after meeting her native Spanish speaker partner.

The human tendency is to want immediate gratification – We’re surrounded by it: Lose 10 pounds in 1 week! Organize your junk drawer in 5 minutes!

Language learning isn’t one of those things you can magically speak fluently in a short amount of time – Even babies start out with the basics and build their way up. That being said, there are ways to become proficient in a language more quickly, and the very best way is through immersion.

For the benefit of yourself and your child, encourage/beg/make deals with your native speaker partner to speak to you in their native language. It is one of the most valuable gifts they have to give. Encourage your partner to speak Spanish to your child and tell him all the benefits it will bring to your son or daughter. A few of the benefits:

• Your child will be more in touch with his heritage, and better able to visit your partner’s native country to explore his roots.

• He will be able to communicate with his grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Family is so important and if he can’t speak Spanish, chances are as he gets older, he will drift away from relatives he can’t easily keep in touch with.

• Being bilingual, particularly English/Spanish bilingual, means that his job opportunities increase as an adult, plus he is likely to make more money than monolingual employees!

• Research has shown that children who are raised bilingual perform better academically in seemingly unrelated subjects like math, and music, plus they’re better at multi-tasking.

• Research has shown that bilinguals have a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s later in life.

Tell your partner all of this, do a quick Google search and find the articles to back it up if he doesn’t believe you. Some people just need to know concrete ways their child will benefit before they jump on the bandwagon.

As for learning Spanish yourself, aside from downloading Duolingo to your phone and playing it each day, (which I recommend!) – immerse yourself in the language as much as possible: the music you listen to, the TV you watch, the books you read, the friends you make… Surround yourself with native speakers as much as possible and SPEAK. Even if you feel awkward, make a million mistakes or people laugh at you. Speaking Spanish, more than anything else, will help your brain “click.” The more you speak, the more comfortable you become and the more vocabulary you learn, even if you have to stop mid-sentence and ask what something is called, or carry a little English/Spanish dictionary with you.

I hope this helps! Suerte! (Good luck!)

Playlist: Paz

During the month of December, blogueras Romina of Mamá XXI and Laura of Mamá Especial Cuenta Conmigo are posting messages of peace on their blogs and social media channels as part of the #MamisPorLaPAZ initiative they created.

You can read more about it here but I decided to contribute at least one post to the cause by creating this playlist for peace.

What song or video that fits the theme of “paz” would you add to this list? Share in comments! (And feel free to join initiative on your own blogs and social media channels.)

Juanes – Odio Por Amor

Natalia LaFourcade – Un Derecho de Nacimiento

UNFPA El Salvador – Yo Decido Vivir en Paz

Espinoza Paz – Si Amas a Dios

Señor Tenga – Mensaje de Paz

Playing for Change – United

Julieta Venegas – Un Poco De Paz

Juanes – Paz, Paz, Paz

A few videos (not songs) worth watching:

Naciones Unidas El Salvador – También soy persona

Unsung Hero – TVC Thai Life Insurance

The Most Astounding Fact – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Conversations at Casa López – Part 8


Here we go – my family’s most recent “bilingual moments” and funny conversations. (Be sure to share your recent funny conversations in comments!)

Tracy: Police officers in England don’t use firearms and you never hear about mass murders there, do you?

Carlos: What about Jack the Stripper?

Tracy: [picks up a ghost-shaped Halloween cookie] Booooooooo!

Carlos: [picks up a pumpkin-shaped cookie] Booooooo!

Tracy: Um, no.

Tracy: He wants K.D.’s for his birthday.

Carlos: What?

Tracy: K.D.’s, it’s a type of fancy Nike shoe named after the basketball player Kevin Durant.

Carlos: Kevin Duran? Is he Latino?

Carlos: I have sarpullido.

Tracy: What’s that?

Carlos: That’s how you call rash in El Salvador – sarpullido.

Tracy: Oh, that’s so cute. Sapollido because when a person is rashy they get bumpy like a sapo!

“You’re lucky I’m phone-lingual.”

– My 17 year old son [who owns an iPhone] after I asked him to figure out something on my Android

Hispanic Heritage Month 2015 Photo Challenge: Day #14 and 15

I’ll be participating in the “15 Days of Hispanic Heritage” photo challenge over on Instagram hosted by ¿Qué Means What? and The Nueva Latina. If you want to participate, just use the hashtag #HHM15Foto and take a photo for the given theme on each day! Here’s my photo and caption from Instagram for the final days of the challenge, #14 and 15.


Challenge day 14, theme: #hoy / today (Posting a day late, ironically) … This photo of an #accionpoetica quote in #México by Flickr user esperales says “Somos instantes.” Translation: We are instants. It’s a simple reminder of the fragility, uncertainty, and brevity of life. All you have is today, this moment. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. I try to always remember it and act accordingly. #HispanicHeritageMonth


Challenge day 15, theme: mañana / tomorrow … This #dicho in #Spanish, (“Hoy por ti, mañana por mí”) means, “Today for you, tomorrow for me.” …When was the last time you did something special for somebody? When was the last time somebody did something special for you? #HispanicHeritageMonth

Hispanic Heritage Month 2015 Photo Challenge: Day #12 and 13

I’ll be participating in the “15 Days of Hispanic Heritage” photo challenge over on Instagram hosted by ¿Qué Means What? and The Nueva Latina. If you want to participate, just use the hashtag #HHM15Foto and take a photo for the given theme on each day! Here’s my photo and caption from Instagram for Days #12 and 13.


Challenge day 12, theme: tu ciudad / your city

I was born and raised in Maryland, about 30 minutes from DC and we now live about 90 minutes from DC in an area that strikes a perfect balance between city and country as there is plenty of both. One of my very favorite things about parts of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia, are the mountains. I never get tired of seeing them, especially on days like this when they’re green, and the sky is blue and full of perfect white clouds. They remind both me and Carlos of the montañas and volcanos of El Salvador.


Challenge day 13, theme: #amor / #love

Like millions of other people out there, Catholic or otherwise, I’ve been really touched by Pope Francis’s message of love this past week as he has visited cities in the United States. I have to say, his sense of humor is pretty great too. Here is some of what he had to say on the topic of families yesterday: “Families have difficulties. Families, we quarrel, and sometimes plates can fly. And children bring headaches. I won’t speak about mother-in-laws…In the family, indeed, there are difficulties. But those difficulties are overcome with love. Hatred is not capable of dealing with any difficulty [or] overcoming any difficulty. Division of hearts cannot overcome any difficulty. Only love. Only love is able to overcome. Love is about celebration, love is joy, love is moving forward.”

#popefrancis #HispanicHeritageMonth #family #familia #papafrancisco