Aug 01, 2015


The Guilt and Challenge of Raising Bilingual Children

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Photo by P Medved

My sister and I grew up with parents and grandparents who only spoke Spanish. We listened to, sang and danced only Spanish music. We watched Spanish television networks, and most of our friends were  Spanish-speaking.  We lived in Washington Heights, a bustling (predominantly) Dominican neighborhood with all the cultural elements of a fully Latino existence.

In our home, today, our children speak only in English. They listen to English songs on their iPods. They watch English television programs.  Their friends are primarily English-speaking, and they live in a predominantly white, suburban neighborhood.  Furthermore, my husband doesn’t speak Spanish — which makes it even more challenging for me to speak Spanish at home all the time.

This is why I treasure the times when we take our children to visit Abuela’s (grandma’s) apartment back in the city.  They know Abuela will only speak to them in Spanish. They expect dinner to be a delicious Dominican dish with fried plantains on the side.  If only we could visit Abuela more frequently, so the kids could speak more Spanish, but the reality is that we moved to the suburbs and abuela still lives in the city.

The Guilt and the Challenge

I feel terribly guilty and ashamed that my children don’t speak Spanish fluently. It’s something I struggle with every single day of my life.  My heart aches when I listen to other bilingual children speak fluent Spanish — they sound so beautiful and eloquent.  Like so many of us, I want my children to be bilingual and to enjoy speaking Spanish.  Yet, it feels like a fight — I’m fighting them to speak Spanish, and I’m fighting myself to speak to them more in Spanish.  It’s frustrating, challenging and exhausting.  With a busy life, it’s always easier to say what you need to say in the language you know they will immediately understand.

Making Spanish a Part of Our Family Life

Over the last few years, I have tried to incorporate Spanish into our daily family life.  For those of you who feel as challenged as I do, here are some things I’ve done and learned.  Would love to hear your thoughts on your experience raising your children bilingual:

1.  Prepare the kids ahead of time.  Years ago, my children were fully monolingual English-speaking.  When I was ready to introduce them to more Spanish at home, I began to have conversations with them about learning Spanish. I explored their thoughts about speaking Spanish (some children internalize negative ideas about other languages), and we talked about how important it is to speak other languages.


2.  Ask their opinion on how to incorporate Spanish at homeI asked each one of the kids for their suggestions on ways and strategies we could use to speak more Spanish at home — this helped them get right on board with it. They came up with some really creative ideas!


3.  Ease in the idea of speaking more Spanish. Take turtle steps.  The goal is to increase their Spanish fluency, but there is no set time to achieve that goal.  As long as they are using words, phrases and enjoying the language, that’s all that matters. With time (and all the efforts we discuss here), your kids become increasingly more fluent.


4.  Carve out Spanish television time from their regular TV-watching time.  If your children watch television, you may consider tuning into Spanish networks like VMe TV, which has a great children’s programming in the morning.  You can also listen to Spanish radio while driving them to school, and dance to Spanish music at home!


5.  Engage the kids in cultural events:  museums that celebrates our culture, concerts in Spanish, and visits Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. We have a nearby town (10 miles away) that is predominantly Dominican. I absolutely love going there for pastelitos and other Dominican food items.  Every Saturday, we go there with the kids. We walk around town, listen to the people speak Spanish in the bodegas and watch our culture!


6.  Use commands words and simple questions in Spanish.  I’m no different than my mother.  I’m always giving the kids commands “¡Ven Acá!”   I find that saying commands, short directions and asking questions in Spanish comes very easy for me.  Try that and see if it works for you…


7.  Use lots of non-verbal behaviors, pointing and facial expressions while speaking in Spanish. By pointing and using Spanish words, you can create a visual-verbal connection of vocabulary words they can learn


8.  Don’t make it academic. Speaking Spanish should feel natural. The moment you begin to sound like a teacher, you’ll lose your children’s interest.  Make Spanish-speaking relevant and fun!


9.  Have more gatherings at home with extended family members.  Summers are a perfect time for us to invite cousins, aunts and uncles we haven’t seen all year, for family gatherings. I especially love inviting older family members who can speak to the children in Spanish and tell them fun family stories.


10.  If your child is into baseball (or other sports), point out the Spanish-speaking baseball players, and point out the baseball player’s country of origin. Our son loves baseball. It’s been a great way for him to feel proud of being of Dominican descent — all of his favorite baseball players are Dominican!  We have borrowed biography books from the library on some of the baseball players he admires.  I like reading their stories of growing up in Dominican Republic, and watching photos of the small baseball fields they used to play in, as children.


11.  The sooner you introduce them to Spanish, the easier and the better.  This goes without saying. It’s best to start early — read to them in Spanish from day one.  Use Spanish words for their basic needs items like “leche,” “biberón” and “mamila.”  


12.  Take long vacations in Spanish-speaking countries. We noticed a turning point when we took our kids to the Dominican Republic for a summer vacation.  Not only did they began to appreciate the language, but they also began to feel connected to the Latino/Dominican culture.    The socialization and cultural process to learning a language is key.  Language is best internalized when personal/social/emotional experiences are paired up with the language.


13.  Spanish-fluency is important, but it should not define Latino identity.  It is very important for us to keep in mind that, while we want to raise our children bilingual, we should not make the mistake of associating Spanish language fluency to identity.  There are plenty of people who are not fluent in Spanish but feel and identify themselves as Latino.  Spanish fluency is just one part of our Latino identity.  No one’s identity should be judged based on their Spanish fluency.


14.  Connect to online resources.  There are some good websites online, supporting and educating parents who want to raise their children bilingual.  You’ll find articles, resources and a community there.  The one I regularly visit, of course, is  Spanglishbaby.  Other great websites are:  Raising Children BilinguallyMultilingual Children’s Association, and Growing Up Bilingual.  If you know of other websites, please leave their names and link below, and I’ll add them to this list.

What other tips, ideas and strategies have worked for you and your family — in raising them bilingual?


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Angélica Pérez-Litwin

Angélica Pérez-Litwin

Dr. Perez-Litwin is the Founder & CEO of ELLA Leadership Institute, a multi-platform professional development organization designed to advance the careers and leadership of women. She's the creative force behind the LATINAS THINK BIG™ national tour, sponsored and live-streamed by Google.

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  1. Angelica,
    I can’t wait to meet you. I related to this 100% because this is the only area of life where I will admit to having guilt. I’ll add that my hubby is Japanese, born on northern island of Hokkaido. In addition to the time/language challenge, we struggle with: Where do we travel to first, Mexico, the country of my ancestors or Japan, the nation of his? It’s a pickle, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. :-) Thanks for listing tips too! See you at Stanford in May!


    • Angélica Pérez-Litwin Angélica Pérez-Litwin says:

      Graciela! Can’t wait to meet you, too!!

      Guess what? My husband is half Japanese and half White/Caucasian? So we have even more in common!

      We definitely need to have lunch in California!

  2. Angelica! I thank you not only for including SpanglishBaby, but mostly for being so honest about feeling ashamed. It’s a guilt many parents carry around and it needs to come out because that’s how we can teach future moms to not let the same thing happen to them.
    It’s totally not your fault because you didn’t have as many resources as your mom did: your abuela! Nor was there as much community support and expert research to encourage us to do whatever it takes to give our children the gift of bilingualism.
    All your tips are dead on and I’m sure if you’ve been doing these, your kids have the language in them. Just wait for them to be in a real need to speak it for it to all come rushing out. You’ll see!!!

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