At fifteen months, my daughter started spitting out words like crazy, exactly at the same time she started daycare. And with this came our worries that being exposed to English just when she was starting to learn Spanish, would confuse her to the point that my husband's nightmares would become a reality. You see, ever since she was born, he has had nightmares about his daughter asking him to take her for a ride in his troka to the marketa. So you can imagine how important an issue her acquisition and fluency of both Spanish and English is in our home. We don't want her to just understand Spanish and speak back to us in English; we want her to be able to communicate with her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in Mexico and El Salvador in their language. We don't want her to feel embarrassed because she speaks Spanish but speaks it differently.
By the time she had turned three, Camila had a long distance relationship with everyone in her family, except for her mamá and papá. I always feel guilty that, not only will she be an only child, but she'll also be deprived of knowing what it is to visit la casa de la abuela for lunch every Saturday, to have wild sleepovers with her primas or to just have multiple hands on deck to lovingly care for her at a moment's notice. Her first trip to El Salvador when she turned three was not only an immersion in language, but an immersion in familia. In this case, the two are intertwined.
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From the moment we got to my mother's house, Camila was putting the new words in her vocabulary to good use: tía, prima, primo, abuelita, abuelito. All words she had previously known merely as concepts, not concepts I'm sure she could even grasp at her age. She had seen and met them all before-except for her one-year-old primito-but she was too young to retain the relationships from a distance. To my surprise, as soon as she saw them all again she immediately embraced each one with a joy that can only be bonded through blood. The next morning, the first words out of her mouth were: "¿Dónde están mi tía y mis primos?" ("Where are my cousins and my aunt?") Just like that, she had a family. And they all speak the same language she speaks at home. The language she associates with warmth, safety and pure love.
That was when I realized that by immersing her in Spanish, we had not only gifted her with the mighty brain of a bilingual, but we had also given her the chance to be truly connected with her family and her heritage.
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Here are my top 4 reasons for raising a bilingual child:
1. Opening doors and a world of opportunities
There's no doubt that speaking twoa or more languages, especially Spanish, is a much needed 21st Century skill. I have the gift of that skill in my hands, why wouldn't I pass it along to my daughter as early as possible?
I can clearly see how all of the important milestones in both my professional and personal life have been been enhanced, or even made possible, because of the uniqueness of my cross-cultural and bilingual life. I have a unique knack for understanding the American way of life, the Hispanic/Latino culture in the United States, the Latino culture south of the border and all the ways in which they intersect. It's the way I view the world and am at ease in all those scenarios. I want to share that unique perspective with my little one and have it be one of the many life scenarios which shape her future.
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2. Connection with familia
Most of our immediate family lives in Mexico and El Salvador. I want my girl to have no inhibitions when communicating with her abuelos, primos y tíos. They are already separated by distance and time; they don't need a language barrier as well.
So far our efforts have paid off since she's been able to fully embrace not only her family's language, but also their food, customs and traditions in both countries. She will continue to be la prima gringa, but her bilingual skills have even proven to be a source of inspiration and admiration from our loved ones.
This is the most selfish of all my reasons, but the reality is I am most comfortable speaking in Spanish, and I want my daughter to be equally comfortable speaking to me in Spanish as well.
Camila is five now and her own comfort level varies depending on the situation she's in and the amount of exposure she's had at that time. Since until recently she was attending an all-English Montessori school, I find that her language of play is English and it takes a while for her to make the switch back to Spanish when she's been surrounded by English all day. But, once she gets going and her brain picks up that she's with mamá-and, admittedly, with some prodding from me!-she switches back to mostly Spanish to that language comfort zone we have created for ourselves.
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4. No regrets
When speaking to someone who is a native Spanish speaker, but is hesitating about whether or not they should pass Spanish along to their kids, I usually use my number one fear tactic on them. I tell them to fast forward to when their child is eighteen-ish and figures out by himself how much of an asset it would have been in his life's toolkit if he could say he was a fluent Spanish speaker. Maybe he wants to travel to Latin America; or he lost a great opportunity to a bilingual candidate; or maybe he just met the girl of his dreams and she only speaks Spanish. I ask them to realize that at that precise moment their child will turn around and blame them for not speaking Spanish to him when the time was right and the brain ripe. You don't want to be in that position of regret when there's no more turning back time to give this gift to your child.
My friend and fellow blogger Yvonne Condes, the daughter of Mexican immigrants and mother of two boys, is one of those people who regrets not being brought up bilingual. "I wish I spoke fluent Spanish," Yvonne openly shares with us."I understand that my parents had their reasons for not speaking Spanish to me and to my siblings, but it's always something that's bothered me. They spoke to each other, but not to us. All of my cousins speak Spanish and many of my friends, and I feel like I'm missing something profound."
Are these the words you want to hear your child say to you when she is older? The time is now; the sooner the better. No regrets.
- By Ana Flores
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Ana L. Flores is a co-founder of SpanglishBaby, the blog and online community for parents raising bilingual and bicultural kids. She's also co-author of the book, Bilingual is Better, to be published in the fall of 2012.
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