Before I got pregnant with my one-and-only girl, I never gave the concept of "raising a bilingual child" much thought. All I knew was that my husband and I both spoke Spanish to each other and as a first choice among friends, and that we would naturally speak Spanish to our daughter. But not with a laid-out plan or a specific method because, well, that's just so not our style! I guess we naively thought the Spanish-fluency gene would automatically be passed on to her at birth, just like my curls and her dad's blond looks would be.
But once she was born and we delved into an almost helicopter parenting mode, we began to ask ourselves some of the same questions many families ask themselves about raising bilingual children. Would hearing more than one language from birth be confusing for a child's seemingly small, undeveloped brain? Would it put her at a cognitive and social disadvantage? Is there even any real benefit whatsoever to make it worth the hard work of raising a bilingual child? We knew in our hearts that raising our daughter in two languages would be good for her, but was there any solid evidence to back that up? That's when the parenting books, websites and blogs came in—not that we found a whole lot of information out there for bilingual families at that time.
At 15 months, Camila started spitting out words like crazy, exactly at the same time she started daycare. And with this came our worries that being exposed to English just when she was starting to learn Spanish, would confuse her to the point that my husband's nightmares would become a reality. You see, ever since she was born, he has had nightmares about his daughter asking him to take her for a ride in his troka to the marketa. So you can imagine how important an issue her acquisition and fluency of both Spanish and English is in our home. We don't want her to just understand Spanish and speak back to us in English; we want her to be able to communicate with her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in Mexico and El Salvador in their language. We don't want her to feel embarrassed because she speaks Spanish but speaks it differently.
By the time she had turned 3, Camila had a long-distance relationship with everyone in her family, except for her mamá and papá. I always feel guilty that, not only will she be an only child, but she'll also be deprived of knowing what it is to visit la casa de la abuela for lunch every Saturday, to have wild sleepovers with her primas or to just have multiple hands on deck to lovingly care for her at a moment's notice. Her first trip to El Salvador when she turned three was not only an immersion in language, but also an immersion in familia. In this case, the two are intertwined.
From the moment we got to my mother's house, Camila was putting the new words in her vocabulary to good use: tía, prima, primo, abuelita, abuelito. All words she had previously known merely as concepts, not concepts I'm sure she could even grasp at her age. She had seen and met them all before—except for her 1-year-old primito—but she was too young to retain the relationships from a distance. To my surprise, as soon as she saw them all again she immediately embraced each one with a joy that can only be bonded through blood. The next morning, the first words out of her mouth were: "¿Dónde están mi tía y mis primos?" Just like that, she had a family. And they all speak the same language she speaks at home. The language she associates with warmth, safety and pure love.
That was when I realized that by immersing her in Spanish, we had not only gifted her with the mighty brain of a bilingual, but we had also given her the chance to be truly connected with her family and her heritage.