There is no right way to parent. Wrong way? Yes. But one right way? No. We learn this very early on in the parenting world. We take classes, we read books, and we ask our friends with kids a million questions but there is no universal guidebook to parenting. Instead, we follow our children’s lead, we learn from our friends experiences, the good and the bad, and we learn that everything is triall and error. We take notes and implement the ideas that fit with our family. The same goes for raising your children bilingual, or trilingual. Although there are similar practices happening in each home, each family we feature has their own spin on it. For example, the amount of time each child spends with each parent will influence their comprehension of each language. Are they seeing, speaking, or hearing the language from anyone other than a parent? Each of these factors need to be considered when laying the foundation of a second language. There is so much to absorb and so we brought in the experts. Meet the Zambrano/Ybañez, Berner/Flores, Grajzgrund/Escalante and Morshed families, all good friends of Love Child contributor Karen Trombetta. Karen interviewed each family asking about their backgrounds and how they are raising their children bilingual, or in some cases, trilingual. Take notes! We welcome your insights and personal experiences in our comment box below.
Berner Flores Family
Paulina met Dani in Austin. Her mom’s twin sister knew his parents and wanted their amazing son to meet her fantastic niece. It worked! They are now married and have a daughter, Camila, who is 3.
Dani was born in Freeport, but spent his childhood between Brazil and Spain. He went to high school in Belgium, and moved to Austin to attend UT. He spent the first years of his career as a lawyer in Puerto Rico and NYC and then came back to Austin to settle down and have a family.
It’s a super long story, but with their citizenships combined, Camila is a citizen of the United States, Mexico, Brazil, and Switzerland. Paulina and Dani speak Spanish to each other, Dani speaks Portuguese to Camila while Pau speaks to her in Spanish.
Spanish is by far the strongest language in their home and Camila’s first language. Paulina says that because Camila knows her dad also speaks Spanish she doesn’t make a strong effort to speak Portuguese, even though she understands it. Dani’s parents and sister are also multilingual. They speak Portuguese, but whenever they’re around Pau they switch to Spanish making it even more difficult for Portuguese to be stronger in Camila’s environment. Cami attends the West Austin Youth Association’s pre-school where the only language that is spoken is English. At first, she felt a bit left out since she didn’t speak English, but within six months she was fluent and able to communicate with her class mates and teachers.
Pau says Cami mixes words constantly. She calls it Spanglish (Spanish and English) and Portuñol (Portuguese and Español). Her solution for this is to tell Cami she doesn’t understand when she uses a mixed-language word and have her repeat it in Spanish. She says when they’re around friends who don’t speak Spanish she makes it clear to Cami that they’re only doing it so that the others around them are able to understand them. This works for them. Cami is able to keep English at school and with friends, Spanish and Portuguese at home.
Zambrano Ybañez Family
It had been two years or so since I had seen Mario who had moved back to his home town of Monterrey. I was at a cheesy bar downtown when he grabbed me, twirled me around and said he was so in love and had found “the one”. Her name was Maria and she lived in Madrid. Maria and Mario got married and moved back to Mario’s beloved college town, Austin. They have two children, Micaela (4) and Lucas (1).
Maria is fluent in French and quite proficient in Italian. Mario is fluent in German. They both speak Spanish, their native language, and English as they traveled extensively growing up and in their daily lives here in the United States. They speak Spanish to each other.
When Micaela was born, Maria spoke only French. Micaela first went to a neighborhood preschool where English was the primary language spoken/taught. So she learned English and would mix her words at home. Mario speaks Spanish to Micaela and Maria focused on speaking French until she turned 3 at which point they enrolled her at the Austin International School for its excellent French program. Lucas has been exposed to French, but not exclusively like Micaela was when she was an infant. Lucas attends Didactica, a Spanish immersion preschool. Maria makes it a point to speak French to them daily, but says their native language is definitely Spanish.
Maria’s tip is to begin your bilingual journey as soon as you can, so that you afford your children the best chance to get their accent down. Micaela and Lucas mix words a lot, but Maria and Mario see this as a good thing. They are amazed by how their little brains are growing and developing. They welcome the mistakes as it means their children truly are learning multiple languages and how to decipher and distinguish the words in each one. For example, Micaela will ask Maria what a certain word in Spanish means. Maria will then describe what the word means (speaking Spanish) and once she understands she would say the word in the language in which she already knows it – be it French or English. Take a moment to digest that. This is a 4-year-old.
Mario is the only one in the family that does not speak French. Sometimes the children forget and begin speaking French but realize it and switch to Spanish so everyone can join in the conversation. Although this allows Mario to also learn and practice French! She says her children are beginning to recognize who speaks what and are able to change to the common language in their different circles.
This is why they think it’s so important for their children to spend time with their grandparents. Granted, both sets of grandparents are Spanish speakers, but one set speaks Castilian, and the other Mexican Spanish. Maria and Mario want to make sure that their children absorb as much of both accents as possible and use the proper vocabulary (and slang) with their extended family. The next step for this family is once everyone is proficient in English, Spanish, and French, to begin with German.
Tarek and Maria married, had Asia, and then divorced. They co-parent quite beautifully and Asia has benefited from having a multicultural family. Tarek was born in Libya into a family in which both sides spoke multiple languages going back generations. His dad spoke Bengali, Hindu, Urdu, Arabic, English, and we’re probably missing a few. His mom grew up speaking Bengali, Hindu, and Urdu. Tarek grew up speaking Bengali, Arabic, and English. Begali was due to his family cultures, Arabic because it is the primary language spoken in Libya, and English as he and his brother attended boarding schools from the age 5 to 8 in Malta and then American school from age 9-12. His norm was to hear languages from all over the world on a daily basis. It was necessary, even for children, to speak at least two languages – one at school with peers, the language spoken where you lived, and the English taught at school.
At age 12 his family moved to Houston. Tarek was shocked to only hear English at school. Maria’s story is a bit simpler to explain — Her family moved to the States from the Philippines when she was two. Her mother feared her children would be treated as outcast if they did not speak English so she made sure the only language spoken at home was English and they learned it quickly.
It was easy to decide that Tarek would speak Bengali with Asia; however, he admits he dropped the ball and wasn’t too consistent with it the first four years of Asia’s life (she’s 9 going on 10). Asia understands everything Tarek says, but her first reaction is to respond in English – something they’re working to change. Asia’s Bengali is very good and Tarek thinks with one more year she’ll be 100% fluent. Considering Tarek is the only source of Bengali Asia has in Austin that’s pretty impressive. Tarek believes that the most important thing about learning another language is truly understanding the feel, intonations, accents, etc. This makes it more intuitive and natural for the person to learn.
Asia attends a Montessori school which has a Spanish-focused curriculum once a week. She has been learning Spanish since the 1st grade. At a very distant third, Asia is now learning the Arabic alphabet since she is Moslem. They won’t get much into her becoming fluent, but because she will know how to pronounce all the letters and read the Qoran along with the diction and cadence, Tarek believes it will be easy for her to learn Arabic if she wants to.
I asked Asia her thoughts on her bilingual upbringing. She says she can remember being 4 or 5 and realizing that she knew more than one way to understand what she was told. She says sometimes all the different words can get jumbled up in your head, but she prefers to learn a new language by speaking with someone rather than a book or an app. Tarek shares that Asia has this way of combining Bengali, English, and Spanish in the same sentence in a way that she thinks is clever. Not because she is confused. He says these combos are hilarious. Can you imagine? I can barely speak Spanish sometimes, let alone be funny in my second language, and this 9-year-old is combining them all to make clever jokes? Amazing.
Grajzgrund Escalante Family
Sofía and Ben met in the most adorable out-of-a-movie-meet-cute way on a train in the dining car over helping translate for someone who didn’t speak French. The past 7 years of their fabulous life have been spent in Geneva — winters skiing in Chamonix and summers in Cannes. It’s super ridiculously beautiful. They’re basically a catalog. Except real. And the sweetest family with a 2-year-old, Eithan, and boy number two due in June.
Sofía was born in Chihuahua but spent most of her life in El Paso. Her parents then relocated to Denver which is where her and Ben hope to live long-term. Ben was born in France and speaks French, English, and Spanish.
Geneva is an extremely international city and the three most common languages are French, English, and Spanish. Easy for this little family. Their home is a revolving door of the three on a regular basis, particularly for play dates. In fact, Sofía says that a child that is trilingual is considered average. Seriously. It’s the most normal thing for an affordable child care or pre-school to have English and Spanish in the curriculum and for all children to speak all three fluently.
When Sofía first arrived in Switzerland, she lived with a French family. She only spoke English with the 5-year-old girl and 3-year-old boy. They were French speakers, but quickly picked up English – in a matter of 6 months they were fluent. Sofía says the 3-year-old actually took some time before he used any English words at all and then one day he woke up and spoke it perfectly. It was as if he had been storing and sorting the words in his brain until everything made sense. Sofía focuses on speaking Spanish to their little one and Ben focuses on French. They say that, while not proud of it, they do mix all the languages in their home. It all depends on the context – if they’re with French friends, they speak French, with Spanish speakers, Spanish, and so on. Since Eithan is new to the speaking world, they can’t tell if he speaks more Spanish or French since he understands and uses both. Time will tell what this little man favors, but he will most definitely be trilingual.
Sofía and Ben have noticed that Eithan speaks less than children his age in Mexico, USA, and even France. This is only a concern because they see his need to communicate more and more every day and his frustration when he can’t express himself so that they understand him. He is also struggling with pronunciation. Sometimes he uses a French accent while speaking Spanish and vice versa. This is way cute. The families that surround them all deal with these same issues, they wouldn’t have realized it was an issue if they hadn’t visited family ‘back home’. For the Grajzgrunds raising their children speaking Spanish and French was a given, especially since Sofia and Ben are trilingual themselves. They want them to communicate with their families and, beyond that, understand their cultures.
Grandparents on both sides speak to Eithan in their first languages, but they’re all making an effort to learn basic French and Spanish to support his multiculturalism. Sofía says they’ll definitely push for a fourth language.