At 13, I started to teach my youngest sister Spanish. She was one, a great age to learn a second language. I’d say, “Hola” and she’d repeat it. I moved onto the next logical phrase, “¿Dónde está la planta?” Where is the plant? I picked one fern in particular. I’d ask the question, then motion to it, “Aquí está la planta.” (Here is the plant.) After a bit of repetition, I’d ask and she’d point to it. Success! Or was it?

Once high school began, I forgot the lessons. At winter break, I asked the question and she got it right. I was over the moon. But when I said a different phrase, she signaled the same way. I huffed in frustration, realizing Spanish-like noises meant point at the fern, but without comprehension. Boo-hoo. Any further attempts only led to the same Pavlovian response on her part (the plant signal), and I gave up.

When my youngest cousin was five we camped with our families in the northern woods of Minnesota. I tried again. I played tether-ball tennis, speaking Spanish whenever we were together. The words I repeated most were, “Hola” and “muy bien” (very good). She learned those, and called me her “tall teacher,” which I loved. But although I’d studied Spanish nine years, spent a semester in Spain, majored in Spanish and taught teenagers the language for two years at a private school, I had no teaching license or formal second language acquisition training. My failed attempts were unscientific and inconsistent.

I dreamed of raising bilingual children. From my brief teaching experience, I realized speaking Spanish every day from the beginning was key; total immersion from birth, ideal. I read how-to books on bilingual families. I swore that every morning, in sickness and in health, I’d speak the “target language,” Spanish, with our child until noon (or until school started). We’d speak English with Daddy. Then use Spanish again at the end of the day. My will alone was not enough to produce a Spanish speaker; it required routine, discipline, constancy, community and love. I decided it was worth it to try.

My first words to our newborn daughter, were, “Hola, mi amor, bienvenida.” (Hello, my love, welcome.) My daughter and I went about daily life; breakfast, baths, board books, singing songs, walks, bicycle rides, games, playing cars, talking to stuffed animals in the target language for the first half of the day. I’d lapse into English after talking with her Daddy, friends on the phone, or family visits, but I kept my morning promise 90%. After lunch, it was English. Following this method, her first word was, “agua.”

The formula worked until she was two. We couldn’t find a bilingual preschool. After monolingual English preschool, she refused to speak Spanish. I’d speak to her en español and she’d reply in English. Unfortunately, this is common for kids in countries with one dominant language. But, fortunately I met moms also raising kids in Spanish and we formed a play group. We had fun play dates, zoo expeditions, and celebrated birthdays with our bilingual friends. But even surrounded in Spanish, our daughter continued a pattern of responding mostly in English. But she understands well el español.

I thought bilingual elementary school would turn this around. We were lucky to get into Nuestro Mundo (Our World) public school. Our daughter learned to read and write en español, which was beautiful. But she’d converse in Spanish with her teacher only, not other students. She learned a lot, but in the end the school wasn’t a good fit.

We’re one year out of immersion school, still continuing our half-days in Spanish. What started as an experiment, has transformed my life. Spanish is now a tender maternal language for me; mi amor, mi vida, mija (my love, my life, my daughter). On occasion, I’ve had days when I wondered if it was hubris or madness for a non-native speaker like me to pursue a bilingual home. But I consider it an act of love, both for the Spanish language and for our daughter.

This summer, our daughter realized her vocabulary was slipping and decided to speak more Spanish. A Venezuelan friend asked her this week if she likes to speak español, and she replied, “Sí, mucho.” That was a golden moment. Wherever our daughter’s path leads, I hope this experiment will open doors in el futuro.

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una bellísima mariposa

Para leer este ensayo en español, haz un clic aquí.

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