Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Why won’t my kids speak English?

In my 22 years in Mexico, I’ve happened upon a familiar scene several times. It involves a family with one Mexican parent and one foreign parent. There are children, or perhaps just one. The scenario, as you might have implied from the title, involves trying to teach your child English.

And though the foreign parent, usually English-speaking, may speak to me in English, it’s Spanish with their kids. “Oh, they understand English, they just won’t speak it.”

Oh, dear.

Bicultural kids
It is quite common to see multicultural families in Mexico, but multilingual ones can sometimes be problematic. (Chayene Rafaela/Unsplash)

The roots

How does this happen?

Most of the times I’ve witnessed this dynamic, the father is the foreigner, and the mother, Mexican. Obviously, I’ve got a theory — for my generation of immigrants and older, at least.

The profile of young men who would come to Mexico before it was cool tended toward counter-culture hippie types. And if they stayed, they typically wound up with one of two types of women. The first, shy, sweet and unassuming; the second, also counterculture hippies.

And to be a counter-culture hippie in Mexico often means to reject, loudly, imperialism from the north. One easy way to do that is to actively resist the imposition of their language and culture. As an added bonus, avoiding the hard work of learning a language gets rebranded as activism.

But like humans everywhere, we’re charming, and sometimes even get people to fall in love with and marry us.

Golden boys

Foreign men especially get huge returns on at least attempting to speak the language. People may be impressed by foreign women who learn Spanish, but they love, love, love when men do it.

Why? I’m not sure. But I have seen countless foreign men get adopted into multiple Mexican families. If they’re friendly, passably good-looking and speak even broken Spanish, they’re golden. They’re fed, included in all major family events and generally treated like rock stars.

Notably, I have not yet witnessed this treatment of foreign women. I fear the root of this is the fact that a foreign woman does not meet the standard of what it traditionally means to be a good woman in Mexico. If you’re a visitor, you’re serving no one. All those American “Girls Gone Wild” videos from the ‘90s couldn’t have helped, either.

Anyway: if you’re a foreign man in Mexico and not a total jerk, you’ve found your oyster.

The (kind of) bicultural, monolingual Kid

So why rock the boat? You’ve got a formula that works and you don’t want to mess it up. If you’ve married someone with misgivings about your culture, you may not be eager to disturb the peace at home by bringing it to the foreground.

Chances are, too, that your kids will adopt some similar attitudes of ambivalence. Pair that with every child’s need to fit in and not be too different and you’ve got a recipe for protest.

I’ve often heard that the ideal situation for a child to learn another language from birth is to have a foreign mother in the father’s country. The reasoning behind this is old-fashioned: mothers, traditionally, interact more with their children.

I suspect that this is less true with modern parents, but the fact remains. If you don’t speak to your kid regularly in your language, your kid won’t learn the language. Period.

How to make sure your kids are bilingual

Protest or not, speaking two or more languages is always beneficial. If making it happen automatically is a gift you’re able to give your child, it’s my opinion that you should.

Mother and son
Insisting on speaking your language from a young age is important. (Bruno Nascimento/Unsplash)

To make this happen is, as a friend once brilliantly put it, not a mystery; it’s just hard. All you have to do as the “foreign” parent is this: insist that your children speak to you only in your language.

That’s it.

They will likely push back, even as babies. That’s okay — you might as well get used to that aspect of parenting now. If your kids know that you speak the primary language — and how could they not — they will likely protest. But you must stand firm. Even though it’s not the truth, you must say, “Mommy can only understand you if you speak to her in English.” Unless it’s a dire emergency, ignore them in Spanish, or say “What? Can you say it in English?”

I mean, you don’t have to be cruel. If your kid — especially if they’re older when you begin — truly doesn’t know how to say what they want, teach them. Make them repeat it. Explain that it’s important to you to have that linguistic connection to them.

While this article is not peer-reviewed, the author’s daughter is fluent in English and Spanish, so the advice seems to have worked.  (Sarah DeVries)

If you’ve been speaking to them in your language from the beginning, though, narrating everything you can to them, these moments will be few and far between. I promise.

My own 10-year-old, who has been raised in Mexico, speaks both languages fluently. She doesn’t have an accent in either, and never has. People ask me how I managed to teach her English, but really, I didn’t teach her. I simply never spoke directly to her in Spanish, ever, and that was that. Done. Easy.

And don’t worry about their Spanish, by the way. It’s the language of the sea they swim in. They’ll learn it just as naturally as they did English.

So go forth, parents. Don’t be afraid to put your foot down about insisting they speak your language with you. I am 100% sure they’ll be glad for it in the future.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sarahedevries.substack.com.

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