Why My Hispanic Children Don’t Know Spanish

Revised Version

When Hispanic people realize my Hispanic children do not know Spanish I can see that they are surprised and disappointed. When American people can’t understand what my son is saying they assume he does not know English. In both these instances I have to explain that my son has a speech delay, and that we decided to focus on English when he started speech therapy. Afterwards, people then tell me that a speech delay is common in bilingual children because they are confused by the language, which is really frustrating to hear because my son could not say mama or momma until he was almost four years old.  It is the same word in both language and yet he could not say it. I find I have to explain myself. I feel I have to tell them the whole story. For this reason I am putting it in writing.  This is for the Hispanic moms that get judged because their children do not know Spanish. This is for the people that think raising bilingual children is easy.  This is for the people that think all Hispanic children know Spanish.  This is for the Hispanic children who’s speech delay does not get taken seriously.

Before becoming a parent I assumed I would teach my children Spanish. How else would they sing along to a Mariachi song or watch one of the classic Pedro Infante movies?  Those are experiences you just can’t translate. Most importantly I knew first hand how speaking Spanish had helped me obtain two job offers after graduating college during a recession. One of those job offers was to be a bilingual account executive for one of the biggest English radio stations in Chicago and the other one was to be a statistics analyst at Mexicana Airlines. I took the latter. Neither of those job offers would have came if I did not know Spanish.  My husband and I both agree that being bilingual helped us in our career, and it was a benefit we wanted to pass on to our children. Teaching our children Spanish was never a question for my husband and I.

When I became pregnant with my first child I decided to inform myself about raising a bilingual child.  I found out that there are many ways to teach children multiple languages.  All of the methods had one thing in common, they made sure that there was a clear separation of the two languages. In one method the parents speak to the child in one language and the child learns the other language at school. This is the method most used by immigrant parents, and it was the one used in my case when I was a child. I started Kindergarten only speaking Spanish, but by the end of the school year I could speak English as well. Another method to raise a bilingual child was to have one parent/caregiver speak in one language and the other parent/caregiver speak in a different language.  This method, again, aims at separating the languages to eliminate confusion for the child. The third method suggested was to only speak one language indoors and speak the other language outdoors.  It seemed real simple! Just expose the baby to both languages, but keep them separate by person, place or time. That was great information, but I did not finish reading the book until the baby was five months, and we had already been speaking to the baby only in Spanish.  By default we chose the first method. We felt more comfortable speaking English, but we wanted to lay a good foundation in Spanish.

I had decided to be a stay at home mom so we were not going to have a two environments with two separate languages. We did not have grandma to teach the baby Spanish during the day while we spoke English to him in the evening, and we did not have a daycare that could speak English to him so that we could focus on Spanish at home. Nope, it was just us…that is until we left the house to go to toddler music class where everyone spoke English.  Outside our home I had to translate for my child. I had to translate to my child in class, during play dates, at doctor visits…I started to feel terrible that he could not communicate with people first hand. The world around us was in English. We lived in a suburb where the Hispanic population is 7%. Our family that speaks Spanish lived an hour away and we saw them once a month. My son could not understand the people in our community, and it was my fault.  Teaching my child English became a bigger concern once we attended Babygarten classes. I realized I could not send my child to Kindergarten not knowing English. This was not the 80’s! We lived in a time and place where children in kindergarten could write their names and could count to 20 before even setting foot into class.  Kids would be working on learning to write and my son would be working on learning to speak. There were so many realities making me doubt our decision to only speak Spanish to our child.  We tried having my husband be the English speaking parent, but he only saw the baby two hours a day. I tried speaking Spanish at home and English outside, but that was hard to remember. It turned out raising bilingual child was not as so simple when one is living outside the Hispanic community and far from family.

Despite my doubts we continued to speak to our son only in Spanish. By the time he was two he would only make animal/vehicle noises and say dada, but he could not say any other words. His pediatrician initially said it was normal and that boys are usually late speakers, especially bilingual children (even though he was not bilingual, we only spoke to him in Spanish). The doctor was not concerned, but I was.  You see, my son still had not said mama or momma…it is the same in English or Spanish.  Upon hearing this the doctor set us up for an evaluation. The evaluation results confirmed my suspicion. Our son had a speech delay and would need speech therapy.  The evaluation results also indicated that due to our son’s tendency to avoid looking people in the eye, dislike of being held or contained, running off into the street, hitting other children, having no sense of fear, trouble transitioning from activities, extreme picky eating and need for routine, concluded he had some sensory issues and he had some signs that indicated he should be screened for autism at a later date.  The last part of the news was unexpected and it was terrifying. It was recommended that he meet with a speech therapist once a week, and that he would need a translator since he only spoke Spanish.

It was at that moment that I no longer worried about my child being bilingual. I would be grateful if he could just say momma and speak one language.  At that moment I decided I would speak to my son only in English. I wanted him to receive speech therapy directly from the speech therapist and not from a translator. If my son has a speech delay I could not make it worse by not teaching him the language he was going to need to survive in the US.  If they thought he might have autism I needed to prepare him the best I could for the world he lived in. I told the therapist we would not need a translator. Abruptly, we stopped speaking to our child in Spanish.  After speaking to my son only in English for a month he started speech therapy.  Not only did he understand the teacher, but he started to say words. It was amazing!  The only consonant sound he could make were V, B and P so it was still hard to understand, but we were so happy he was talking.  A year after speech therapy he finally said momma clearly for the first time. It meant the world to me!

Currently he is almost 5 years old and he can tell you a story, name planets and name endless amounts of dinosaurs. He is brilliant. He still attends speech therapy because he continues to have problems with articulation, but he is improving every year.  He went through an autism screening at age 3 and passed although he was diagnosed with social communication disorder.  He is currently going through another evaluation, but I feel confident his diagnosis will be dropped.  He has matured with time and we had great teachers and therapists to help.

Teaching the next generation Spanish is complicated, and not just for parents with children with a speech delay. It is complicated for families who do not live in a Hispanic community. Never is the term “it takes a village” most appropriate to when it comes to language and communication.  Immersion is the best teacher in language, and in a village where most people only speak English it is not so easy. It may have been easy for me as a child to be bilingual, but my children are not growing up in a similar situation as I was raised. I am proud of my culture, I minored in Latino Studies, I started an online Latino community group for our suburb (300 members) and I blog about passing on my heritage to my children. This is my way of creating that village. I still plan on teaching my children Spanish for the benefits in the workforce, and also because my children look Hispanic. When people realize they don’t know Spanish they act as if I told them they have a third eye. I explain to them that I intended to teach my children Spanish. I tell them about the speech delay. They ask if the speech delay was caused by confusion of the two languages and I want to scream. I was so cautious to only speak one language. My son was not confused. He could identify letters at 18 months, he knew all the words he just could not say them. English speaking children get taken seriously when they have a speech delay.  Hispanic parents get blamed when their children have a speech delay.  The Hispanic community assumes I am not proud of my culture and therefore don’t teach my children Spanish.  So much judgement from different directions.

If my children do not know Spanish I will not feel like a failure, instead I will be grateful for all the abilities they do have. I will forever be grateful for having a healthy and happy boy and girl! In the end it does not matter if your child speaks one language or twelve. You are already winning if he can speak one language clearly.


Update (1 year later):

My child no longer has a social communication disorder diagnosis! His speech delay, however, is now being called a speech disorder. He works very hard with speech therapist and with me. We make progress every year.