How do I raise a bilingual child?

Before our son was born, we thought we had it all figured out.  I would speak English and my husband would speak Spanish and our son would grow up with both in his ears and magically begin to speak both.  Only it didn’t work out that way, funny that.  My husband was diligent for the first two years, then got discouraged since our son never seemed to pick up on it.  Part of the issue is that our schedules were so hectic that our son didn’t see his Papa except just before bed and on weekends.

A good seventy percent of our boy’s time was spent with my family, who were speaking a complex, educated English to him.  We never held back or simplified, with the result that he is an insanely articulate five year old in English.  His ability to articulate is actually greater than his ability to understand concepts.  He can talk passionately about an idea that he has for several minutes even though his logic string is often wackadoodle.  But, well, that is part of being five.

I think he had a very strong need to master one language to the exclusion of the other.  Nothing we did in Spanish seemed to stick.  After a while he ended up having an intense emotional rejection of all things Spanish.  He would say, “Tell me in EeeNGLISH!”  My husband and I decided that it would be counter productive to turn it into an ongoing battle and backed off.

We faced palpable disappointment from the community when it became clear that our boy could not speak Spanish.  Several people told me that I should be teaching him, although no one had any constructive ideas.  It felt like it was somehow my fault, as the white half of the partnership, that I was somehow cutting him off from his culture and heritage, that it was a betrayal of their acceptance of me in some way.

We let some time pass and I found a couple of children’s music CDs that he likes, so we play them in the car once or twice a week.  My son is highly attuned to music, he is absolutely loving the fact that his kindergarten teacher seems to have a song for everything.  He sings them to me every time there is a new song in class, which is several times a week.  My husband also loves music and is beginning to make a point of playing the Spanish music at home.  We are hoping that music will be the wedge we can open his brain with, to let the Spanish inside.

We are also speaking Spanish to each other more and more often.  It can be difficult for me, my grammar is less than perfect and I hate that, and towards the end of the day my brain is tired and Spanish requires me to actively use my brain.  I learned it as an adult and may never feel fully comfortable with it.  However I am persevering because I think it is very important that he have the advantage of knowing more than one language, and avoids the disadvantage of being monolingual.  If he learns Spanish, he will have the neural pathways to learn another language of his choice later on.  I also have a gut feeling that if he doesn’t have a firm grasp of Spanish he will never be able to be quite comfortable with that side of his heritage.

Slowly he is starting to show an interest, he knows numbers, colors, and a few animals, so we are making progress.  I wish there were a class or program designed for young kids in our area that would make it fun.  He responds well to more deliberate structured learning in other areas.  I have looked, but haven’t found anything.

Is it important to you that your child speak the languages of your heritage?  Why or why not?  If so, how have you approached it?  What has been effective, and what hasn’t worked?  Did you grow up not speaking one of the languages of your parents?  How did that affect you within the family and community?  Inquiring minds want to know.