From “agenda” to “relationship”: an update to my bilingual parenting journey


(Photo courtesy of, Flickr Creative Commons)

Last year I wrote about my then two-year old daughter’s language development in Spanish. My husband, D., a native of Spain, and I are raising our two children bilingually: our family’s language policy is Spanish at home/among us four and English with everyone else.

With the arrival of my daughter E. three years ago, I began my bilingual parenting journey with what some might call a “hard core” approach: use only Spanish with my children, all the time. Never English. No translating. Promote, promote, promote the minority language.

As a trained linguist, I can cite all of the research supporting bilingualism. I recognize the advantages of a family language policy that supports the minority language.

And, while I’ll be the first to raise my hand with an emphatic YES! to the benefits of being bilingual, I have to admit that my initial approach to raising bilingual children rested on nothing less than fear and control.

Constantly running through my mind were thoughts like, One day she’ll realize that English is the majority language and hate Spanish!, or, She’ll probably refuse to speak the minority language to me when she’s older, or, What if she never becomes fluent in Spanish?, or, I will never use one word of English in front of her so that she is never tempted to speak it with me.

Fear and control.

I bought book after book for E. in Spanish, I devoured all the parent “how-to” books on raising bilingual children, I joined Facebook groups, I made sure to FaceTime daily with our relatives in Spain. I even started a blog on bilingual parenting!

Fast forward three years later to today.

I’d like to share with you how my approach to raising bilingual children has evolved, how I’ve moved away from a mindset of agenda to embrace an approach towards language based on a genuine relationship.

I am thankful for the countless ways that Magda Gerber’s approach to parenting (RIE) has shaped and changed how I relate to my children over the past two years, including how I approach bilingual parenting.

The following principles that I’ve learned from RIE have shaped how I relate in Spanish – and, yes English at times – to E. and J.


(Photo courtesy of Christian Scheja, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Communicate AUTHENTICALLY with my children – 

Although Spanish is not my native language, it is the language of my marriage of thirteen years, so by default it was actually the natural choice for speaking to my children. And, although currently (because bilingual’s language levels wax and wane over time) I express myself better in English than Spanish, after three years of speaking in Spanish to E., it remains the natural, authentic, mode of communication with her (and, now J.).

Whereas pre-RIE I worried about my accent or level of vocabulary in Spanish, I now just communicate naturally, authentically, and respectfully. I don’t worry about saying “okay” instead of “vale” (“Where did E. pick that up from?” her Spanish grandparents teasingly ask!), and if I don’t know the Spanish word for something in a book of E.’s, then I just tell her in English. Authentic language.

TRUST my child’s language use and development –

Whereas before I used to worry that E. wouldn’t receive enough exposure and input from Spanish, I now understand that “enough” is relative in a bilingual’s language development and that any and all authentic input is wonderful.

Whereas before I obsessed about organizing Spanish-language play dates with other native speakers, I now relax and enjoy watching E. choose her own friends and playmates, regardless of the language they speak.

Whereas before I used to anxiously anticipate for “the day that English starts interfering with her Spanish,” I now revel at her ability to code switch and translanguage. Instead of stressing about English dominating her output, I stand back and observe how and when she brilliantly employs each language, depending on her context and interlocutor.

ENJOY the language with my children –

A language lover at heart, I have always been drawn to words, their sounds, their rhythms, their connotations, the joy they bring to the listener. Now I no longer mind being corrected by my native Spanish-speaking husband if I make a mistake in Spanish. I make a mental note and thank him for the correction. (This is the attitude towards learning in general that I hope to model for my children.)

Enjoying language with my children has also meant picking up some of my favorite books and nursery rhymes and poems in English and reading them to E., instead of translating. Instead of worrying that that takes away from her Spanish language development, I just enjoy the beauty of English with her.

Remain FLUID and OPEN –

A few years back I interviewed a few bilingual families about changes made to their family’s language policy. At the time, I thought to myself, I will never change my language policy of only Spanish. But, now I realize how rigid an understanding I had of bilingualism and language use. Now, thanks to the wisdom of RIE, I am both more mindful of my language use and open to the possibility of wanting and/or needing to change the language of my parent/child relationships. As I begin to consider homeschooling as an option for my children, I wonder how I might need to use English, as well as Spanish, for their education. And, thankfully, that kind of question no longer causes me stress; in fact, I feel excited at the prospect of watching how my children’s language development, in both English and Spanish, evolves and flows over the coming years.

Are you a bilingual family raising children in more than one language? I’d love to hear your thoughts on today’s post.

Interested in learning more about issues related to bilingualism? Check out “Life as a Bilingual,” a blog by researchers François Grosjean and Aneta Pavlenko.

Interested in reading more about RIE? Click here for a post I wrote recently on the topic, which includes links to some other great resources.

9 thoughts on “From “agenda” to “relationship”: an update to my bilingual parenting journey

  1. Loved to hear how your thoughts seems to have developed to something more relaxed. Personally I think all languages have a beauty in them, what great gift for your kids to get to share the gift in English as well with their mother.


  2. We are here in Guatemala awaiting Baby #1. My husband is Guatemalan, and I am from the US; we were both brought up monolingually. We’ve already established that we want Baby to learn English from me. Here in Guatemala, English and computers are the two ways to get a decent job; so if they have to learn English, they might as well learn it from someone who actually knows it. My husband has wanted us to consider private schools because they have a higher level of education, but because schools here are only for a half day, we’re now considering a public school for half the day and homeschooling (in English) for the other half of the day. This will insure that they learn important details of their Guatemalan heritage while still receiving a quality English education as well…and not breaking the bank. There are days when my husband wants our home language to be English, but considering that he maybe speaks 50 words of the language, he still has a ways to go. Besides which, our relationship for the past 6 years has been exclusively in Spanish; so, I would find it difficult to speak English with him. (Of course I am capable of difficult things!) But I think that allowing our language to be a bit more fluid when Papi is around–or even when he isn’t around–isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It allows me to model bilingualism for my children and to show them that just because you are raised in one language and one culture doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of beautiful things you can enjoy of another language or culture. I want to listen to and share with my children both Country music and Latin Pop; I don’t want to necessarily put the latter on their father if he’s not really interested in it! (He likes Banda. Ew. 😀 )


    • Hi! Thanks for stopping by the blog and for taking the time to comment. So sorry for the delayed response. When it comes to language and family/children, natural and authentic and fluid are what I’m learning are the best approach to take. Best to you! Audrey


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