Diving into Spanish: challenges of a bilingual family

389961_10150417368356172_628123129_nCompra dos donuts glaseadas y tres de chocolate. Y no te olvides de pedir el vuelto,” I said to my eight-year-old son during one of our morning stops at the donut shop. He jumped out of the car waving a five dollar bill in his hand.

“¿Entendiste?” I asked. He nodded shyly. I watched him walk into the shop and talk to the attendant. Through the glass windows I could see him stick his nose on the counter were the donuts were graciously displayed. Some were decorated with sprinkles, and others were filled with delicious creamy flavors and powdered with sugar. Donuts were my son’s favorite treat for breakfast. I thought I could smell cinnamon and apples from my car.

Then, my son came out the door empty handed and looked at me, confused. “What did you say I had to buy?”

I chuckled and repeated, “Dos glaseadas y tres de chocolate. Y apúrate que vas a llegar tarde al colegio.”


“Did you understand? Can you repeat it to me?”

“Three chocolate and two glazed… right?”

“¡Muy bien!”

Raising a bilingual family has been a daily challenge since I became a mom eleven years ago. At first it seemed so easy, because it was just me and my oldest son in our little world in Oklahoma. I talked and sang to him in Spanish, but little by little English crawled its way into our household through Sesame Street, Blue’s Clues, and Dora the Explorer. Then, he went to preschool where he was spoken to in English. His sentences were mixed and most people were not able to decipher his questions: “¿My mama is venir?” “Dónde es my toy.” When he was three, his vocabulary wasn’t as advanced as other kids his age so I took him to a developmental specialist. She was a smart and kind lady, who ensured me that he was perfectly fine for his age, but she also said, that bilingualism was slowing down his communications skills. “But don’t stop talking to him in Spanish,” she said. “He’ll eventually be able to separate the two languages. This is perfectly normal in kids with more than one language.” That alone was the best piece of advice I’ve ever 74656_1667969051584_5590174_nreceived.

When I had my second child, however, the battle seemed lost. The two brothers communicated in English to each other, and used Spanglish to talk to mom and dad. My oldest was the one who understood and spoke Spanish the most, but my second son, the donut-loving boy, not so much. He picked up English faster than his brother, and although he spoke in mixed sentences and his language was also delayed, this time I expected it, and knew that he would catch up in no time.

He caught up in English, but Spanish went to sleep. Recently we, as a family, have decided to help our children improve their Spanish speaking skills as a way to give them another tool for life. That’s the reason I’m talking to them in Spanish, even when I have to repeat myself more than once. My oldest son’s grasp of Spanish is advanced, and he’ll ask if he doesn’t understand a word. But my eight-year-old still gives me a baffled look and a forced toothless smile. He claims to have no interest in learning Spanish, but I’m not giving up on him. I know that, deep inside, he’s doing a tremendous effort to learn.

I sometimes wonder how it feels living in his world. I imagine him as a diver, immersed in an ocean of Spanish, looking and observing from inside his mask, being able to understand our body language and read our expressions, but not really hearing us. I see him flowing smoothly with the current, enjoying the touch of algae and life under the sea. I know he’ll start morphing and becoming one of us, ‘Spanish fish’. His diving equipment will abandon him little by little, and he’ll develop gills. I’m optimistic that one day he’ll take his mask and snorkel off and will be able to completely understand. With some more practice he’ll be able to speak Spanish fluently, and swim confidently in the vast and beautiful multicolor sea of our language.

Mariana Llanos


Photo by Steffanie Halley
Photo by Steffanie Halley

Mariana Llanos is a Peruvian writer who has published several children’s books in English and in Spanish. She studied acting and has worked as a preschool music and art teacher for the past years. She advocates for literacy and the inclusion of multicultural characters in children’s literature. Mariana visits schools around the world through virtual technology. Visit her website www.marianallanos.com and her Amazon author page www.amazon.com/author/marianallanos for more information.

Follow Mariana on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/tristanwolfofficial

And Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/marianallanos

This article was originally featured on Discovering the World Through my Son’s Eyes, as part of the Latinas 4 Latino Literacy Dia Blog Hop: http://discoveringtheworldthroughmysonseyes.blogspot.com/2015/04/latinas-for-latino-lit-dia-blog-hop.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+DiscoveringTheWorldThroughMySonsEyes+%28Discovering+The+World+Through+My+Son%27s+Eyes%29

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0 thoughts on “Diving into Spanish: challenges of a bilingual family”

  1. This is a powerful post Mariana. I’m an educator in California, currently specializing in supporting our English learner programs. In CA, and nation-aide, there is currently a rediscovery of the importance of maintaining native language. In fact, some people are beginning to call students who are learning English “Emergent Bilinguals” instead of English learners because it’s so important that we see our multi-lingual students in a positive light. Another rediscovery is the importance of including parents as connected members of the educational support system of their children. I applaud you for sharing this story. It’s an important one for all educators to hear.

    1. I love the term “Emergent Bilinguals”, as I think it is far more accurate than English learners. Children will learn English at school, there’s no doubt about it, but in most cases their Spanish will not survive if parents don’t preserve it at home. I’m also thrilled about that rediscovery of the importance of preserving the family language. Thank you for doing your part in helping those kids see the positive in having a second language. When I visit schools through Skype, I like to address those emergent bilinguals (I’ll call them that from now on!) and tell them that I learned English as a second language too, and that it is important to learn both languages. Thank you for your comment and follow. I’m following your amazing blog as well. I like all things education.

  2. I share so much of your experiences and challenges since I also raised my four children between two languages. Of course, French being rarely spoken in the US it makes for an even more uphill battle than teaching Spanish, which is so widely spoken across the United States. Why would we need to learn how to speak French, Mom, when nobody does? However when they took Spanish lessons the advantage was significant since both languages share the same roots. So many of your sentiments echo mine. Great topic of discussion and beautifully written post, Maria.

    1. Thanks Evelyne. Actually my oldest son wants to learn French. He says he likes it better than Spanish. I’ve told him that he can learn both if he want to, so he’s downloaded Duolingo to start practicing it. He’s also reading your book and almost done with it. Then it’ll be my turn to read it :). And I’m sorry, I usually don’t clarify, but’s killing me: my name is Mariana, yes very similar to Maria. 🙂

      1. Than you, Mariana. I am sorry for the mistake on your name. It happens regularly to me, so I understand the feeling. 😊
        Let me know how your son likes studying French and how you two feel about my novel when you are finished reading it. I thank you for your support.

Mariana Llanos

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I’m Mariana Llanos and I write books for children and poetry in English and Spanish. I am originally from Lima, Peru, but now I live in Oklahoma with my husband, our three children and our dog, Juliet. I started writing poetry since I was very young. I loved reading so much that I wanted to create my own stories to share with the world. I published my first book, Tristan Wolf in 2013. Since then, I haven’t stopped, and I have many more stories, poems, and project that I want to share with YOU!

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