I speak only Spanish to my almost two-year-old daughter.
My husband only speaks English. Our last name is Butler. My daughter and I are blonde. She and my husband have blue eyes. We live in an English speaking community. No one else in the family speaks Spanish. Why do we do it?
I took Spanish in school growing up, and being a good student, I memorized the rules of the language until I was able to be in a literature class with native speakers my senior year in high school. I got to college, and with so much credit under my belt, a minor was only a few classes away, so why not? But for all that, I couldn’t have a conversation in Spanish. The summer after my first year in college, a friend talked me into spending six weeks in Chile as a Catholic missionary, learning to minister to Latinos and doing so in the local communities. It was a total immersion experience, they encouraged us to not even pray in our native language, but only in Spanish. My best friend was with me and, poor girl, didn’t have the vocabulary I did, so her very sincere and earnest prayers went something like: ‘Jesus, thank you. Forgive me. Help me. I love you.’ which is all you need, but still. It was a little easier for me. And after two weeks there, I woke up one day thinking in Spanish! I didn’t have to stop a conversation to translate in my head what I wanted to say. In that experience, I realized something that has changed my life: I now had one billion new potential friends in the world!
Of course, the studies show that being multilingual, especially from birth, has many intellectual benefits. Where I live in California, speaking Spanish is required with many jobs. Knowing another language allows you to more fully experience places and cultures when you travel. And I had to work hard to get here. I ended up majoring in Spanish and moving to Spain for a year after college. I spent a lot of time, energy, and money in order to be able to speak two languages. And if I could give my daughter all these benefits without the cost, why wouldn’t I?
But most importantly for me, if I can help open her heart to see that every person in the world is just like her, they just live in a different language, and that language does not need to be a barrier but can be a bridge, why wouldn’t I?
We don’t have it all figured out. She prefers to speak English so far (because it’s usually less syllables, I’m sure!). I have to look up new vocabulary words all the time (especially since we go to the zoo so often!). And I am not a native speaker so, even though I feel comfortable speaking Spanish, how will it be when she goes through hardships, life changes, on her wedding day? I have to work hard not only to expose her to the minority language through friendships, media, etc. and when the time comes to teach her to read and write in two languages, but to make sure that I am capable of fully entering into our moments together in a foreign language. You thought giving “the talk” was hard? Try it in another language! We will figure it out as we go. There is no manual for raising kids, in a monolingual home or a multilingual one. But when we are at the park and the only other people there are a Mexican family and we can become friends instead of pretending to not notice each other, that is worth it.