Wednesday, March 12, 2008

profile: Marisol and Diego learning English and Spanish in the US

Here's another example of a family successfully raising their children bilingually! Muchas gracias to Neza and Demetrio for their thoughtful, detailed responses and for letting me profile their family!

What is your language background and history? We are a married couple. Neza is from Minnesota. She studied Spanish in school, then went to Mexico as a college student, where she met Demetrio. Demetrio came to live in Minnesota in 1996 with Neza and he only started learning English at that point. He is now fluent in English. We have two children, Marisol, 5 and Diego, 2.

What languages are you exposing your children to, and how? Demetrio speaks mainly Spanish with the children, and Neza speaks mainly English. There are some words which we only use the Spanish term for, (like ‘tina’ is the bathtub, milk is always ‘leche’) and some things are always described in English. We are very loose with our policy on which language to speak. We don’t make it an issue--but the children hear both languages. It’s just a natural part of our family life.

• Why do you want your children to learn a second language? It’s essential that our kids understand the language of their father. Also, they have a large family in Mexico, which we have visited, and we don’t want the kids to be alienated from their own grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins. Language is not only about ‘talking’-- it also connects you to a culture of a particular place. You can’t fully understand the language of a place without learning its culture (and vice versa). We want our kids to feel attached to the Mexican culture. They have a right to it as part of their identity. It’s also one of the greatest gifts you can give your child.

• How well do your children understand, speak, read, and write Spanish? Our children speak mainly in English, because that is the dominant language here in Minnesota. They do understand Spanish--but what comes out of their mouths is English. We review the alphabet in Spanish at home, and read books in Spanish. We expect them to learn to read and write in Spanish as they do English, but we will have to teach it ourselves at home, since they don’t have Spanish reading lessons at school. (They’re only two & five years old).

• How you been able to expose your child to the culture(s) where Spanish is spoken? We have taken trips to visit family in Mexico. We try to visit Mexican businesses and events here in our city. We listen to music in Spanish and watch Spanish TV.

• What challenges have occurred as you teach your children a second language? We haven’t been able to get our kids comfortable responding fully in Spanish, although they understand when spoken to. Also, we don’t have enough other people speaking Spanish to them, so they mainly hear it just from their dad. We’re lacking the ‘community’. Also, Marisol has a Spanish teacher who comes to her school once a week, just as an enrichment program. The problem is that the teacher, although very nice, is an American who speaks the Spanish from Argentina. We teach our kids the Spanish spoken in Mexico, and Marisol sometimes gets confused.

• What resources have been most useful to you? For a while, I took the kids to ECFE (St. Paul Schools program for Early Childhood Family Education). But I went to the one for Spanish speakers, only so my kids could be exposed to the language in another environment. I was the only ‘American’ parent in the class, but I had fun, and my kids got to play with other kids speaking Spanish.

• What do you think parents, caretakers, teachers, and/or researchers need to know about teaching a second language to children? It’s really important to connect to the CULTURE of the country the language comes from. Without the culture, learning a language is just a bunch of memorization. Also, teachers need to stay up-to-date with the modern culture of the country they are teaching. I was really bored by my Spanish teachers in school giving us old information.

• What do you wish you had known when you started? What, if anything, would you do differently now? I became frustrated and bored studying Spanish in school. But it made a huge impact on my life when I actually went to Mexico and lived the language. You have to live with a language, and it’s culture. The way that my husband and I are teaching our children now is the best we can do with our specific family and lifestyle, and I don’t think we would change anything about it.

• Answer your own question now--what did I not ask about that you want to comment on? We don’t have a Spanish immersion school nearby, but there’s a French, a German, and a Chinese school not far from where we live. I have wondered if it would be good to put the kids in any of those schools, even though we don’t speak those languages as a family. Because so much of our child’s learning is at home, I don’t know if I would like my child learning a language at school that I couldn’t understand…Seems silly, but honest.


  1. Wow! Those are two beautiful, amazingly talented children. Of course, I may be biased since I'm their auntie. I wanted to add that I've always been impressed by how consistently Neza and Demetrio have used Spanish with their children. The two languages are a very natural part of their household. Also, Marisol has been an extremely verbal little girl from a very young age and didn't seem to be slowed at all by processing two languages. Diego is right on track, too...when he can get a word in past his big sister. They both know that I don't speak Spanish, so I only hear English from them.

    "Tia" Molly

  2. Hi! I just found your blog through google. This is the most similar situation to my own that I have ever encountered. Thanks for profiling this family! My husband is also from Mexico but speaks perfect English, I'm from the states and speak fairly good spanish. We're expecting our first in July and are still deciding what our language plan for the family will be. He still wants to be able to speak english at home because he loves it and i want to be able to speak b oth languages too...

  3. Thanks for your comments as a "tia," Molly! I'm glad that that kids have taken to both languages so easily--it disproves the belief that early exposure to more than one language will confuse children.

    Laura--Thanks for visiting! I'm glad the profile was helpful. You could also check out the profiles of Ruben, Niki & Isabella, and Jose & Carlos for perspectives on other bilingual families that use Spanish. Congratulations on your pregnancy--I hope it's going well! And have fun figuring out how to make both Spanish and English work for your family. (Maybe I can profile y'all a couple of years down the road!)

  4. It's great that this kind could learn spanish at home, in my case, my son is 20 years old and he's studying in a spanish school in Argentina.