Languages,  Madrehood

Can I Become Bilingual Later in Life?

Sometimes I’m envious of my son. 

I’ve always been envious of people who have been raised bilingual. To have someone speak to you in another language all the time—can you imagine? 

Actually, I can imagine since my husband Javier and my in-laws only speak to me in Spanish. There are moments when my brain fails to make sense out of what I hear. 

If only I’d been raised bilingual! I’d be able to understand everyone better, I lament. 

Don’t Create An Unachievable Standard for Being Bilingual 

My responses to questions in Spanish come slowly on some days. I even have to ask over and over, “Cómo? Puedes decirlo otra vez? Mas despacio por favor…” 

Sure, I can say some phrases, I often respond “Un poquito,” when someone asks if I speak Spanish. This prompts an eye-roll from Javier followed by him declaring, “You speak it well. You’re bilingual!” 

For my fellow Spanish-speakers who are not only learning but living the language, don’t be hard on yourself. 

In all my experience of speaking both Japanese and Spanish, I realized that some native speakers take the time out to correct you, some criticize you, and some get the gist of what you want to say and don’t dwell on your mistakes. Everytime the conjugation of a verb doesn’t come naturally or you forget a word, don’t give up on being bilingual. 

At This Point in My Life, Can I Ever Become bilingual? 

Have you ever asked yourself this? 

The answer: Claro que si! 

Immersion schools, dual-language classes, and trips abroad were luxuries my mother could not afford. In the way a language is enforced in a home, sometimes class differences can show. A parent or child can also show determination. My sister went to Costa Rica with her high school teacher, who covered my sister’s expenses and allowed our mother to pay everything back in installments. 

As a girl, I thought that because of my lack of money to travel and not knowing many native speakers meant that I would never be able to become bilingual. I could learn a language, sure, but that didn’t guarantee that I could become fluent. 

Even now, I feel some reservations about speaking Spanish to Chris. I’m at home with him so we’re together all day reading books, watching YouTube videos, and playing together. I sometimes ask myself if I truly have authority. Most notably, whenever I call my mother, I code-switch. Thankfully both her and my sister make an effort to speak Spanish with me and Chris. 

Native Speakers Ask Themselves This Question Too! 

Two podcasts changed my perspective on bilingualism during childhood and adulthood. In the first one, Latino USA (NPR), the hosts discuss that problems with children feeling more comfortable expressing themselves in English than in Spanish. As a result, they grow up not speaking Spanish.

As an example, a guest described how she and her brother grew up in a Spanish-speaking household. Her brother spoke more English and even embraced American culture more than his Latin roots. 

The sister talks about raising her baby bilingual. There are sound bytes that made me anxious to hear Chris speak his first words in Spanish someday. And then we come to the brother, who expresses that he felt more comfortable using English and saw that it wasn’t necessary to speak Spanish. They discuss how their takes on the importance of bilingualism impacts their lives. 

I am not going to spoil it for you because I highly recommend checking the podcast out yourself! It’s a story worth listening to. 

Entre Los Dos is another podcast that I enjoyed listening to this past week. The co-hosts, Monika Leal and Paula Niño Kehr, discuss being “aggressively intentional” about their children speaking Spanish. 

I never thought about how big of a role schools play in a child’s retention and interaction with the Spanish language. After hearing about the efforts that these mothers put into ensuring their children speak Spanish, I began to worry, as all mothers do.

Obviously raising a child bilingual has its obstacles and hurdles. These aren’t limited to within the home but outside as well.

Intentional mothering is so heartbreakingly beautiful. You care about how much your child is using a language. You want them to not just speak two languages but know different cultures. It’s an investment and a labor of love. 

Hearing the hosts talking about reaching to her daughter’s school and voicing concerns to the school’s principal about how much her child is using Spanish—that’s madrehood!

Heritage Speakers vs Bilingual Speakers

As someone who isn’t Latina, listening to these podcasts can me feel like an outsider. I’m not a heritage speaker. Chances are, you probably aren’t either. 

For me, spanish was widely spoken in my neighborhood and in the schools that I went to growing up. I established a relationship with the language without even knowing it. The term  “heritage speaker” may imply that someone who doesn’t identity as Latinx may not have a personal connection to the language. I don’t believe that at all. 

You may have heard Spanish spoken often or you may have visited the houses of friends whose family members always spoke in Spanish. The connections we have with a language doesn’t have to be through our race. The opposite of a heritage speaker is not someone who doesn’t have any Hispanic or Latin heritage on their family. At least in my opinion. 

Now that I’m married to someone who only speaks Spanish and we’re raising our child bilingual, exploring the afrolatino identities and listening to podcasts aimed at latinx communities (and even biracial communities, interracial communities) feels like a part of my responsibility as a mother. 

Language plays such a huge role in identity. Even though I have no racial connection to the language personally, I know that learning Spanish is not only good for myself but for my baby too. 

I wonder, if Chris doesn’t speak Spanish now, will he speak it later? 

Not knowing the answer bugs me. I’m better off not stressing about it. The time and energy that I put into his bilingualism speaks volumes about my dedication to him as a mother. Together we learn and play. 

Though I’m not a heritage speaker, Spanish continues to have a special place in my life. I hope that it does in yours as well. It’s never too late to learn!

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