*Cristina and Pedro live in Madrid, Spain. Their mother tongue is Spanish and they are non-native speakers of English. Cristina’s English ability is very strong while Pedro’s ability, though less strong, is still quite competent for daily conversation.
*Cristina is a civil servant and Pedro works in the IT industry.
*They both speak to their two children in English. Their daughter, Alicia, is 6.3 years old and their son, Daniel, is 3.3 years old.
The bilingual journey of this Spanish family is an encouraging example, in a number of ways, of non-native parents nurturing early success. It shows that, despite being non-native speakers of the target language who acknowledge shortcomings in their own language skills, Cristina and Pedro have nevertheless been able to generate significant progress in their children’s bilingual ability through their attitude and actions. And even when faced with difficulties along the way, or negative views from others, their teamwork and perseverance have enabled them to overcome such obstacles, time and again, to continue advancing their bilingual aim.
And it all began, in a way, when they were teens. They met right after high school—when Cristina was 18 and Pedro was 17—and have been a couple ever since. “We’ve been together our whole lives,” Cristina said.
Different paths to English proficiency
Though both Cristina and Pedro studied English in school, their experience of gaining active ability in this language has been different.
Cristina recalled that, back in high school, she liked French better than English. But when she began meeting people online, she “fell in love” with English and the language became a passion in her life. “I started doing everything in English because I really liked it,” she said, emphasizing activities like communicating with other English speakers and watching TV programs in English. “I wasn’t really studying. When you like something, when you enjoy it, you keep doing it and so you’re learning. And I like that no matter how long I spend doing this, I’ll never get to the point when I say, ‘Oh, I know everything.’ I like that—it’s a commitment for life.”
Meanwhile, Pedro said that his own English ability was limited until more recently. “I could pass a test, but I couldn’t speak. Then, 10 or 11 years ago, we started watching TV in English with subtitles in Spanish and I started learning from the TV. Suddenly, something switched and I started speaking English with her friends when they came to visit us.” Since that time, Pedro’s ability has grown a lot, though he acknowledges that he isn’t as focused as Cristina is when it comes to the finer points of grammar and pronunciation. “It’s not so important for me,” he said, “but I like it because I can communicate.”
Before they had children, Cristina and Pedro traveled a lot together. Prior to Pedro’s breakthrough in his own English ability, though, he would rely on Cristina during their trips abroad. “At first, I didn’t speak anything with anyone,” he said. “So it was like, ‘You do everything. I don’t want to know anything about it.’”
Cristina added, “And he would say, ‘Don’t leave me alone at the airport!’”
“It was a problem,” Pedro admitted. “But now I’m more confident and I can understand pretty much everything. So I try to make them understand what I want and, normally, it works.”
Committing to a bilingual aim
These travels, in fact, were an important source of inspiration for the couple’s decision to pursue a bilingual aim with their children by raising them in English.
“I want them to have a wider view of the world,” Cristina said, “not just be limited to Spain and not see anything outside it. We had that. We were able to travel to other places and see many other things.”
Pedro agreed, adding, “They can go abroad and speak with other people. I think that’s very important because I suffered a lot when I was in other countries and I couldn’t speak because I didn’t know how. It was frustrating.”
Cristina recalled working at a language school in the city and knowing a teacher whose English ability was highly advanced. “She spoke English to her children and they were bilingual. I thought that was great, but I knew I wasn’t at that level because everyone who met her thought she was a native speaker even though she wasn’t. She knew words in English that I didn’t even know in Spanish!”
She continued, “And I thought, I’d love that for our kids, but I didn’t think we could do it. He was more sure than me. He was like, ‘Yeah, you can do it!’ And I was like, ‘No, I don’t know English well enough.’ But then I looked into it online and I read some books and everything said that even if your English isn’t that good, you can still do it. And I said, ‘Well, if we got here from zero, they’ll go farther than we did.’ So we decided to go for it. And then Pedro said, ‘Well, if you do it, I’ll do it, too!’”
“I was thinking that only Cristina could do it,” Pedro said, “but in the end, I thought, why not? I can try and, well, my English isn’t perfect, but it’s better than nothing.”
“I was concerned because I was thinking he makes a lot of mistakes,” Cristina said. “But then I thought, I make mistakes, too, but any mistakes will be corrected over time.” She also mentioned hearing from some people that providing more language exposure, even if the quality of that input was lower, would be more effective than a lesser amount of exposure of higher quality. “I think they were right. It worked. The kids made mistakes, things that Pedro would say, but they corrected them over time.”
While Cristina and Pedro naturally hope that their children’s English ability will grow as strong as possible, they also hold healthy expectations about their bilingual aim. “We want them to speak English as well as they can,” said Cristina. “Not perfect, because we think that’s impossible given that we don’t speak it perfectly, either. But hopefully, better than us so they don’t have to struggle like we did when we wanted to improve our English.”
Making a range of proactive efforts
Before Alicia was born, the couple made proactive efforts to prepare themselves and their home for her arrival. “I was trying to learn nursery rhymes,” Cristina said. “And we were getting everything in English that we could. We spoke only English to her from day one and we decided that nothing at home could be in Spanish. We didn’t allow any Spanish-speaking toys, Spanish books, Spanish media. And if we got a Spanish toy or book from someone, we would give it to my parents so that we still had it, but it wasn’t in our home.”
Along with the English exposure provided daily by Cristina and Pedro, Alicia also received some additional input in this language from Cristina’s father and an American babysitter. And when Daniel was born, because Cristina was then suffering from tendinitis and couldn’t hold the new baby, they brought in an American woman who helped with the children—and spoke English to them—on a roughly full-time basis for that first year.
Since then, they have continued with weekly home visits from English-speaking babysitters and, in July—when the children are out of school but Cristina and Pedro are working—they have an English-speaking nanny watch over the kids each day for seven hours.
Meanwhile, as Alicia and Daniel have gotten a bit older, Cristina and Pedro have also sought to connect with other English-speaking families in the area so their children can engage in English with other kids. Cristina explained that a trip they took to England, when Alicia was 4 and Daniel was 1, underscored for her the importance of creating opportunities for more interaction with children, beyond the substantial amount of time they’re already spending with adults. “When we went to England, I loved that Alicia could play with other children and learn that kind of vocabulary,” she said. “It’s completely different from the way we speak.”
At this point, the family is involved in the activities of three local English-speaking groups: one where the families get together monthly to do activities together in English, like reading books and making crafts; a second that involves monthly outings like bowling and ice skating, carried out in English; and a third, a smaller group of four families, where they try to meet as regularly as possible, at their homes, so the kids can play together in English.
On top of the productive efforts they’re making in Spain, Cristina and Pedro have continued to view travel as a priority. After their first trip to England as a family, they returned the next summer for a second visit, when Alicia was 5 and Daniel was 2, and they hope to make many more trips together in the future so the kids can be immersed in an English environment and have the chance to play with native-speaking children. Explaining their thinking behind this aspect of their bilingual journey, Cristina said, “We wanted them to see that English was spoken outside Spain, that it was spoken not only by us and some random adults, but that there were also places where English was used by everyone and that it was useful.”
Emphasizing English resources
Cristina and Pedro have also been very proactive about the resources they have at home to promote their target language. While the early restriction on Spanish books and other materials has been loosened somewhat, because Alicia is now reading in Spanish, too, and doing homework for school, they continue to emphasize English resources far more strongly.
“We have a lot of books,” Cristina said. “I try not to buy too many, because we don’t have room on our bookshelves, but there are always some that I want. Pedro told me, ‘We’re not buying anymore.’”
“We don’t have any more space,” Pedro said.
“Yeah, but we can give away the older ones,” Cristina replied. “And the ones that were for Alicia are for Daniel now. Alicia needs bigger books, more challenging ones.”
The problem of “too many books” is faced by many families, though this is a far better problem than the problem of not having enough books in the target language. Still, it’s an ongoing challenge since, as children grow and mature, they need new books that will match their evolving language level and personal interests. One possibility, of course, is the use of digital books and an e-reader of some kind, but many parents aren’t very keen on this option, particularly for younger kids. As Cristina told me, “I don’t want them to have any more screen time. I’d rather they have physical books.”
Movies, on the other hand, needn’t take up much shelf space these days. “We have a hard drive with a million movies,” Pedro said. “They can watch whatever they want, but only in English.”
“On Fridays, we have movie night,” Cristina said.
“It’s movie night with pizza,” Pedro added. “They like that a lot.”
“Yes, and they get lollies. They get sweets. You know, children are always asking for sweets and this way, if they ask us, we can tell them, ‘Sorry, it’s not Friday.’”
Cristina continued, “And all the TV shows that they like, we get them online. We could watch real TV if we want, but the commercials are still in Spanish. And if they’re watching TV, we want them to be watching everything in English.”
“For us, it’s also better watching TV shows like this because we can control the time,” Pedro said. “There’s a little problem, though. Because they don’t watch commercials, they don’t know what they want for Christmas!”
“Sometimes, if their friends have something, they know what they want,” Cristina said. “But they never say, ‘Oh, I want that for Christmas because I saw it on TV!’”
Satisfying both exposure and need
It’s clear, then, that Cristina and Pedro have been very effective in fulfilling the first “core condition” for bilingual success: providing their children with ample exposure in the target language. At the same time, they also have been able to satisfy the second “core condition”—getting their children to feel the need to use this language actively—despite the fact that they themselves are native Spanish speakers and have continued to regularly use Spanish as their shared language as a couple, even around the kids at times. How?
Cristina explained: “When Alicia was 2, there were two words she would only say in Spanish, ‘yes’ and ‘water’; she wouldn’t say these words in English. Our babysitter was American and one day she was able to get Alicia to say ‘water’ in English, which we couldn’t get her to say because she knew that when she asked for water in Spanish, she still got water even though we told her, ‘No, you have to say ‘water’ in English.’ But she wouldn’t say it. The babysitter, though, wasn’t supposed to speak Spanish with Alicia so she pretended not to understand her. And so Alicia started saying ‘water’ in English. Then we realized that because we showed we understood the word in Spanish, she was continuing to say it in Spanish. After that, we said, ‘Wow, this is what we have to do. We can’t show that we understand.’ And with small children, a lot of times you really don’t understand them. So they saw that when they spoke English, they were understood most of the time, but when they spoke Spanish, they weren’t. So in the end, they started using English words instead of Spanish ones.”
It seems that once English took root in this way, the emotional bond that developed between parent and child became tied to this language. This deeply ingrained bond then enabled the family to sustain English as their common language to this point—even though the children are now obviously aware that their parents speak Spanish, too.
When I asked their reaction to how non-native parents are sometimes perceived for not using their native language with their children—that “they can’t communicate at a deeper level with their own children because they’re not using their mother tongue”—Cristina responded in this way: “I hear people say that you can’t really love them in the same way, but this makes no sense to me because feelings are feelings, they have no language. Saying ‘I love you’ or ‘Te quiero’ is the same thing. There’s no difference. What I’m feeling is exactly the same thing, I’m just saying it in one language or another.”
She went on, “It’s true that you can’t say things exactly the way you want to say them, but you get as close as you can and they’re not missing anything, really. In fact, I remember one time at school, they had to draw their family and write something. Most children wrote things like ‘My family’ or ‘My beautiful family’ or ‘I love my family.’ But Alicia wrote, ‘My family loves me.’ So she knew, as well as the other children, or even better, how much she was loved.”
Meeting difficulties with patient persistence
While the family has certainly experienced a lot of success on their bilingual journey together, it’s also true that there was some early concern over Alicia’s language development in Spanish. Although she began going to nursery school when she was one, and was immersed in Spanish each day, by the age of 3 she was still well behind her Spanish-speaking peers.
“It was hard,” Cristina said, “but I read about other people who went through this and they all managed. When something happened at school, she wasn’t able to tell the teacher. She just cried. That was her way of communicating. She was behaving more like a younger child instead of like an older one so she wasn’t really suffering that much. It was just frustrating for her at those times. She told us she liked the school. It was true that she was having trouble communicating, but she still liked it. She was happy there.”
Cristina admits being worried about Alicia’s early development in Spanish and wondered whether there was some kind of speech problem affecting her language acquisition. But a speech therapist reassured her, pointing to the gradual progress Alicia was continuing to make.
Pedro noted that Alicia was always an independent child and was content playing by herself, which meant, in those early years, that she wasn’t often stretching her Spanish through interactions with other kids.
“I think children are very practical,” Cristina said. “Do I need this language? If so, I’ll make the effort. But if I can get by without it, why bother? It’s okay to speak just one language.”
Along with this point about a child’s pragmatic nature when it comes to communication, Cristina also stressed that time itself is central to a child’s bilingual development. “If you don’t have as much exposure as everyone else, you can’t be at their level, at least until you’re older. My children are going to need more time because they haven’t had enough time yet. Part of it is maturity, but part of it is time, I think.”
“It can be hard,” Cristina said, referring to the bilingual journey. “But if you want to do it, don’t give up. Keep going.”
“And don’t be afraid,” Pedro added. “You will be fine. And in the end, it will be worth it.”
AFTERWORD: Since our interview took place, Cristina told me that Pedro has begun using Spanish with the children, in order to help strengthen their Spanish side. Though Alicia and Daniel are now progressing well in Spanish, too, she said she wonders if she and Pedro “overdid it,” early on, in promoting English to the exclusion of Spanish. Of course, different viewpoints on the challenge of nurturing two languages simultaneously can both be valid—so much depends on the particular circumstances of the family involved—but, generally speaking, it’s “easier” to help the majority language catch up to the level of the minority language than it is to do the opposite. With Alicia and Daniel, it may be true that if more emphasis had been placed on Spanish from the beginning of their bilingual acquisition, this could have undercut the strong progress they were able to make in English. We can’t actually know what might have happened if that had been the case, but in other families, it’s clear that an early imbalance of exposure toward the majority language often hinders the child’s development and use of the minority language, with the majority language growing overly dominant. So there’s no “right” answer to this question of balance between the two languages, and that answer, as well, will likely evolve over the years of childhood, depending on the child’s needs. But I suggest that it’s wise to err on the side of caution, especially during the first few formative years, and, if possible, give the minority language a strong head start. Once the child has a firm and active foundation in the minority language, more efforts can be made to support the child’s majority language, as needed.