How our bilingual family has chosen to spend our gap year from school.Read More
My personal bilingual journey
I have flashbacks of being at the airport in the Aurora Airport in Guatemala City at 5 years, old not fulling understanding the heaviness of what was going on around me. The adults in my family embraced and cried, as we said goodbye for what was meant to be two years in Houston while my dad trained as a specialist in pulmonary medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.
I remember looking at my aunts, and saying, “ Voy a regresar hablando ingles y rubia con ojos azules.” I’m my young mind, learning a language meant that I would also trade in my physical appearance to match my perception of American culture. I explained that I would come back speaking English, and blonde haired and blue eyed. They chuckled at my perception, but probably understood that I would come back with some adopted Americanized views.
We moved to Houston in August, and that same month I began kindergarten in a public school. Unlike many immigrants coming to Houston, my parents were bilingual and educated. Mrs. Strickland werlcomed me and my family into her classroom, and was patient about my language development and curious about my culture.
My parents implemented a situational bilingual model. At home, we spoke Spanish and in school and out and about we spoke English. They always made sure that we remembered the importance of speaking Spanish, as well as learning English. I have a very vivid memory of a teacher coming to reprimand my brother and me on the playground for speaking Spanish. My brother followed behind me in school by a year, and he was still not comfortable as a kindergartener. My mom found out about the recess incident, and made it very clear that we needed to remember that being bilingual was a gift, and apologized that the teacher didn’t see it this way.
Needless to say, my brothers and all were completely fluent within a year, and quickly our preferred language of play became English. My parents didn’t try to dissuade this, but continued to hold us to the expectation that at home we spoke Spanish to them. Two years turned into 35 years. My parents carved out a comfortable bicultural life for us in Southwest Houston. It was a life flavored with cultures from all over Latin America, and we were also blessed with family coming through for months at a time from Guatemala. There was definitely a time in our lives, when we lived in an Anglo world, and were embarrassed by our Guatemalan heritage, and speaking Spanish, but I am so glad that my parents held their ground. My brothers and I are all still perfectly bilingual, and living in Houston.
This brings me to present day Houston. My husband and I are still in the battle to raise our kids bilingually in Houston. I have made my living educating kids in schools as a bilingual educator, an international school teacher, and now as a business owner of a Spanish immersion enrichment program. As a bilingual family, we have heard countless times about what a gift we are giving our kids.
For the first time this Spring, I’ve see an outward perception that speaking Spanish wasn’t something that was beneficial. I debated posting something that might be viewed as political, but I felt like it was worth mentioning the shift, so we can continue to support one another.
I was at a museum in Houston on a field trip with my kids, ages 10, 9, and 6. As is customary, I was explaining something to them in Spanish. I was startled when behind me a woman said, “You should really learn to speak English.” My gut reaction was raw, and I quickly snapped, “ I speak fine in English, thank you.” I saw her look of surprise and quickly walked away with the kids when I realized that she wasn’t alone, and I might have put us in an unsafe situation with my response.
As I write this, I still can’t believe that it happened. I have heard of a couple of instances like this happening around our country, and it saddens me, and makes me work harder at being sure my kids are proud of their cultures and languages. Yes, we are a bilingual and bicultural family.
Recently, I had someone ask me if it was necessary that their child attend a Spanish immersion program in order for them to be bilingual. Houston just had it's magnet notification day, which a friend recently compared to medical school match day for kindergarten. Her daughter had the opportunity to hold one of the very coveted spots in a dual language school. My answer to her was that although it is not necessary, it is very helpful. This exchange brought to the surface something that I have a little bit of regret about.
We live in Houston, and the opportunities for my family to speak and interact in Spanish are bountiful. As a family who began our language journey from birth with a one parent one language model, our young daughter expressed herself first in Spanish. She spent the better part of her days in the loving care of her Oma, my mom, who spoke to her, played with her, and read to her in Spanish. I spoke to her exclusively in Spanish as did all of my extended family. Regardless, our family language was English, and by the time we were making kindergarten decisions, she preferred English, our community language. We jumped at the chance for her to attend a local dual language immersion program. We needed help, because by now, her two younger siblings, especially my reluctant Spanish speaking son, were also more comfortable in English. She had a wonderful teacher, and by the end of kindergarten was reading in both English and Spanish. Now, surrounded by our new tribe of Spanish speaking families, our world was Spanish speaking until my husband came home. This was the pattern of our lives for the next two years. A year later, our son, began in the same dual language immersion program, and I assumed we would continue three years later with our youngest daughter. We loved our school, our teachers, and our community, but we were magnet students , and I began to hear talk of the magnet program being discontinued before all three kids were enrolled.
In an effort to be prepared, I began to explore other options for schools around Houston, mostly private faith based schools. During this exploration, we happened upon a university model classic Christian school, where parents partnered with classroom teachers. The model seemed ideal for us. It allowed me to home school with an academically rigorous curriculum two days out of the week, and still give the kids a school setting for another two days a week. Having been trained as an educator, I longed to take a more active role in their education, and the slower pace of part time home school really appealed to us. We applied, and I reluctantly informed the dual language school we loved so much. It was a difficult decision for our family, our children had received a wonderful bilingual education to this point, but we knew state tests were around the corner, and were unsure of the chances all three children could attend the same school.
This is where a bit of regret comes in....not because we changed schools. Our new school filled many of the needs for our kids that we felt were missing . It was a nurturing faith based environment that really challenged them academically. I got to spend much more time with them since we home schooled for 3 days of the week. It slowed the hectic pace of our lives tremendously, but.....they lost their Spanish instruction, we lost the ability to interact with our Spanish speaking tribe on a daily basis, and for the first time I had to speak to the kids in English. As the co-teacher in an English curriculum, I had to read and help them write in English. I'm proud to be a very balanced bilingual, but it threw a wrench in our one parent one language model, and arrogantly, I didn't think it would interrupt their Spanish language development. Well, I was so wrong. I found myself clamoring to regain some of the Spanish they were losing.
I own and run a business where students are enriched in Spanish classes from book clubs, writing clubs and Spanish theater. I made sure they each attended a weekly session, but soon, their schedules were full, and I thought, I can just implement it at home. Even with all my training and expertise, I failed to realize how intentional I was going to have to be to not lose the bilingual children I had worked so hard to raise. Take note, although it is not necessary to have your children enrolled in a dual language immersion program if you are lucky enough to be admitted, it is very, very helpful. In my next post, I will explore other ways that you can be intentional about finding Spanish speaking opportunities. I will also go into more detail about how I help my soon to be 5th, 4th and 1st grade children continue their growth in Spanish now that we are no longer in a dual language program. It is possible to raise bilingual children if your are consistent, persistent, and creative, even if you don't live in a city as bilingual as Houston.