ForeignMom's Blog

Bicultural mom adjusting to motherhood in a foreign country

The Richness of Positive Cultural Exchanges April 28, 2017

Sometimes the shortest trips, the ones taken within your own region of the country, are the ones that turn out to be the most contrasting with our quotidian lives. As it was the case of our most recent visit to Chicago.

Not even four hours away from us, right on the other side of Lake Michigan. This big city is one of our children’s most favorite places to visit. They like the cars, and the noise, and the endless lines of people walking up and down the main streets. They enjoy the view of the tall buildings and the sky lighted with tiny windows in the horizon at night.

It is a place of wonder for them. Frankly, for us as well. We like the variety of restaurants, the racially mixed families that mirror our own, and the  endless cultural opportunities.

Although we go to Chicago often, this last time was very unique as we visited my cousin and his family in their diverse home. My cousin is also Mexican but he’s married to a French girl and together they have a son who was born in Mexico and a daughter born in the States. (You did not think I was the only one in the family who started a multi-racial clan, right?).

As soon as their son opened the door, we were immerse in a weekend-long cultural exchange. A mix of English, French and Spanish set the tone for our adventure. My kids were exposed to quiche and brioche with salted butter, which I now have had to make available for them at our own home, per their request. Their children tried pretzels filled with peanut butter and were on-the-go more hours than what they are used to, keeping up with my gang.

We talked about my latest post about the challenges of keeping a bilingual house and they pointed out how in their case, French is the main language because is spoken both at home and at school all the time. They gave me more ideas to keep Spanish more present in our lives, and I even caught myself speaking it less and less in this multi-lingual weekend adventure. (Mental note to correct that).

Along with our families’ cultural exchanges, came the concept of how to navigate around in bigger cities. After we said hello and unloaded our car, we headed to the neighborhood park. The kids on scooters, bikes and strollers following our 4-year-old tour guide on wheels. It seemed that, even at a younger age than my 7 and 5-year-old kids, our tour guide knew the rules of stopping at every street corner before crossing, making room for other pedestrians on the sidewalk and being aware of the cars at all times.

Now, is not like my kids were running around and crossing the streets without looking, but, they certainly had to be reminded to use their street smarts more than a few times. The fact that they didn’t know where they were going didn’t help to keep them on their side of the sidewalk either. But I think they were very impressed by their little cousin who was used to the “urban rules”. On the way back, they were certainly more conscious of what they were doing. It was a good lesson learned.

During this short time we had sharing sinks, and cleaning after 5 children, the four adults got a glimpse of what life is like for other multicultural families. We influenced each other in a positive way and our children spent meaningful time individually among each other. It was wonderful to hear my 2-year-old daughter and our little tour guide engage in a conversation at play time -when they thought nobody was listening. It was equally amusing to hear my 7-year-old responding in Spanish to a sentence said in French.

I love having this connection with my multicultural cousin and his family as we always get something positive out from our encounters. In this case, it was the opportunity of engaging my children in activities out of the norm for them. They loved having breakfast à la française and listening to our multilingual conversations.

I believe that while our goal to raising bilingual children has met some challenges as of late; the one of raising multicultural ones is right on track! Just ask them what some of their favorite foods are and you’ll find a colorful blend of cultural backgrounds.

I say we can feel pretty victorious at the moment!

 

I Give Up April 4, 2017

OK, I admit it… I can’t be solely responsible for my children’s bilingualism. There, I said it. I’m giving up. But not in the sense that you might think. 

I will continue to speak in Spanish to them, to encourage them to read in Spanish, listening to music in Spanish, and celebrating our multicultural traditions. Perhaps even device strategies to help them engage in conversations in Spanish in a more organic way (one that doesn’t requiere constant nagging on my part).

However, I have finally understood that I cannot do it alone -even by being a Stay-At-Home-Mom. 

So I’m giving up on the idea of doing it all by myself. I need reinforcements from the community and family and friends. So I have come up with an alternative plan. One where I model behavior and try to keep my kids’ bilingual and multicultural knowledge growing as they mature themselves.

I wish we had the option of enrolling them in a Spanish-immersion program but that isn’t the case right now. That’s why, I have contacted a tutor specialized in children to help me teach my children how to read and with whom they would only speak Spanish to -if only for a set period of time every week.

I encourage them to call their grandparents in Mexico as often as they can so they can practice conversation (even though they don’t know that they are doing it also for academic purposes).

I also joined a playgroup in Spanish so that my youngest one can increase the exposure to the language outside of the home.

This journey to bilingualism doesn’t stop here. It doesn’t end with the tired children who prefer to speak in their main language only. It may be a childhood-long learning experience in which breaks will now be allowed, but where the main goal of full bilingualism will always be in sight. 

I’m giving up direct control over the situation but I hope the combination of outside influences and constant modeling will rekindle my kids’ interest in Spanish.

Wish me luck! And as usual, I welcome any ideas and experiences in your own journey to raising bilingual and multicultural children. 

 

Kindergarten Progress Reports and Bilingual Goals February 2, 2016

Progress Reports for the month of January have been sent home and I was very nervous to receive them as I did not know what exactly to expect from my kindergartener who had been struggling in the area of English Language Arts.

As I have said before, all the books about bilingual and multilingual children that I have read, encourage parents not to give up when the children find it challenging to keep up with more than one language. But that is certainly easier said than done.

For starters, the planning one must do selecting media and books for the children can be overwhelming. It is also very hard to try diverting conversations from the main spoken language to the one that is only spoken by the parents at home. The lack of vocabulary in the home language is sometimes frustrating for young children who are just eager to share whatever exciting thing they learned about in school.

Lastly, like it was in my case of course, children often face difficulty grasping the phonetics of one language. Having more than one language to learn at the same time, can be very challenging -especially as children start learning how to read in the main language and continue to speak the secondary languages at home.

When my 5-year-old faced the problem of sounding out the correct phonetics in English as she started to learn sight words and how to read, she found it confusing to read our books in Spanish at home. After talking with her teacher, we decided to stop reading in Spanish to push the learning process in English.

I felt like I was loosing some kind of war at that time. I did not want my child to loose interest in speaking my native tongue -especially since she had acquired a larger vocabulary in the recent months. However, I knew that reading in the main language is an imperative need in order to succeed in school and elsewhere.

We have focused on reading only in English, the prominent language, for about three months now and this is what I have seen:

  • A more confident child in the area of English Language Arts. She now allows herself to make mistakes as she tries to sound out words. Most of the time, she can read them on her own.
  • An increase in vocabulary and in the number of sight words she knows.
  • A better understanding of the text. She is able to explain what the text is about, even when I ask her to tell me in Spanish.
  • A much better performance in her evaluations.
  • An increased interest to learn how to read also in Spanish. This came as a pleasant surprise to me. I’m very excited that now that she has the theory of how to read in English down, she’s feeling confident and is curious to apply it to Spanish. I’m going to hold off on that until perhaps this summer of maybe in the Fall when she starts first grade. I want her to get one language down before we move on to the next challenge.

To summarize, books and advice from other people who have raised bilingual children is a great tool to have -even when it seems impossible to overcome the challenges of keeping both languages at equal levels of fluency. They are a good reminder that other people have been able to succeed at the task and they can also be good encouragement during the times when our children seem like they are ready to leave the second language behind.

There will be times when we will have to push one language over another, but the most important thing than one can do to promote bilingualism, is keep modeling it ourselves. Luckily for me, I have plenty of opportunities to speak in Spanish in my daily life and my profession as a translator always allows me to have an opportunity to talk to my children about the advantages of knowing more than one language fluently.

We are taking one step at a time but after the initial hiccup that kindergarten presented in my goals toward bilingualism for my children, I feel more confident that with a little patience and more planning, I can teach my children how to be bi-literate as well.

 

Family (Members) Who Are Like Friends December 2, 2015

I love the anticipation and excitement that welcoming visitors over our house brings. The food planning, the sprucing of spaces in the house, the rehabilitation of the toy room turned into the guest bedroom. It is all very fun for me -especially when those visitors happen to be very special.

My cousin recently moved to a city about three hours away from us. We haven’t had much contact for a while because we both were living in countries other than Mexico and when I went back home to visit, we seldom crossed paths.

I remembered him kindly, however. His parents are my godparents and growing up his house was basically a second home for me. Him and I were always dreaming or debating about something and then our different interests landed us in places far away from home.

It wasn’t until I heard he was living in the U.S. that I reached out to him and learned of his move closer to me. We decided to meet up in person next time I was over by him. When we did, we each had a whole set of people attached to us. I didn’t know how things were going to be, but him and my husband seemed to hit it off so well that we ended up making plans together for Thanksgiving.

I struggled to hold back the tears of excitement when his little family came through the door of our house. It was the first time ever that we had welcomed any family for a holiday since I had lived in the States. I wanted it to be perfect and for everybody, young and not, to have the funnest of all times.

There is only so much you can do as a hostess for the group dynamic to flow gracefully: the linens were clean, the guest bathroom had all the major necessities, and I made sure the four new people in our home had a space that they could use as their own. I included my cousin’s wife in the food planning and preparation and tried for everyone to feel just at home. But even if you plan everything perfectly, if there is no chemistry between people, there isn’t any welcoming cocktail that could replace it.

Luckily for us, we found ourselves enjoying the holiday in great harmony. The kitchen was the center of the main interactions. Where I got to know my cousin’s wife and discovered just how much we have in common. As the aromas of the food surrounded us, also the air of emerging friendships invaded the kitchen. My cousin and I reconnected and found common ground in parenthood. My husband and my cousin’s wife chatted over wine and cheese. The kids ran around the house playing together as if they had known each other for a long time. It was a scene worthy of a postcard!

We debated politics and the need for winter gear in the Midwest; we exchanged parenting tips and questioned the same practices of disengaged parents at playgrounds; we laughed and shared stories that made us teary-eyed. Three languages danced together to make great conversations as we shared a common identity of being multi-cultural families racing children in a country foreign to us all.

We talked and we ate and we played and we enjoyed the comfort of being in great company. So I start this holiday season with a big smile on my face and the pleasant taste of having family nearby vibrating all over me. I’m thankful for magical and unforgettable moments surrounded by great people and for realizing that while there are friends who are like family, there also are family members who are like friends.

 

 

I Just Can’t Help Her November 15, 2015

Parent-teacher conferences were last Thursday at my daughter’s kindergarten. If you read my post from last week, that was the cause for great anxiety. Part of my stress was that I had been doubting my approach to raising bilingual children. I was having second thoughts about introducing the phonetics of the Spanish language along with the English language learning that was going on at school.

I knew my daughter had the need to visit the intervention teacher for help learning her alphabet. Something that sounded to me like the kid was basically flunking kindergarten. After I calmed myself down, not on my own but because I received my child’s progress report before the above mentioned conference, I realized that she was on track on every aspect that was graded there.

So why then, did she need to be pulled out of the main classroom? And, was that still happening? So as you can probably expect, I showed up at the conference with my questions written down and ready to jot down any advice the teacher would provide.

What I learned that evening was nothing too worrisome. My daughter is still being pulled out of the main classroom to help getting good phonetic basis before pushing her to learn how to read. She has made progress and now instead of being in a group of 2-3 students per teacher, she’s in one with up to 5. The challenges she’s facing -and working on overcoming- are identifying the different sounds of the English language and learning to use them in different syllables and words.

Now, it is people’s instinct to blame her bilingualism for the confusion, but all the linguistic books I read on raising multi-lingual children, said that the exposure to more than one language had nothing to do with the obstacles that a child learning how to speak, write or read may experience. I do not think, in my experience, that I can blame my daughter’s bilingual skills for her delay in learning the phonetics of the English language. I think the problem is her parents’ pronunciation as second-language-speakers.

I have a pretty good domain of my second language, after all, I do have an American high school diploma and a degree in Public Relations from an American university. However, it doesn’t matter that I had started learning English when I was a young girl or that I have lived in the U.S. for the last 13 years, I speak with an accent. A much milder accent than when I first moved to Michigan, mind you. But my inability to pronounce certain sounds may be a greater cause of confusion for my children than the exposure to the Spanish language.

Now, you would think that because I speak to my children in Spanish 90% of the time, their accent in that language is as good as a native speaker. The truth is that they speak English much more like native speakers, even though they may have learned it from their parents who speak it with an accent. It is all fascinating to me. In the end, children learn the main language spoken in the place they live and one must fight to keep the other one alive.

So yes, my kindergartener needs extra help in the English Language Arts department now, but in the long run, her ability to speak, read and write in two languages from a young age, will enrich not only her academic path, but her life as a whole. I just have to constantly remind myself that the challenges she may be facing right now, are but a speckle in the kaleidoscope that her academic career would become.

I am thankful that my little girl attends a school with caring teachers and with the resources to help her master the skills she needs right now, to succeed later. Teaching her the phonetics of the English language is one area where I just can’t help her.

 

School, Academics and Bilingualism November 9, 2015

When I had my first baby I had many convictions of the type of mother I wanted to be: loving, involved, strict, active… the list can go on for a while. I have adjusted some expectations in part because of my children’s different personalities and in part because of life just being different than what I thought it would be. Sometimes I have had to think twice about carrying on a certain plan being aware that my Type-A personality may be asking too much of a young child.

Now that my 5-year-old is in kindergarten, I have found that many expectations that I had for what school was going to be, do not really fit with reality. For starters, I thought that mastering one skill after another was just going to come easily. I thought that because my daughter loves to tell me all of the social aspects of school, she was going to be as open to share what she was learning and what she was having trouble getting. I thought that bilingualism was going to come just with exposure to both languages, but I have come to the conclusion that if I want my kids to be bi-literate also, it is going to take much more than just keep speaking to them in both languages.

I must confess that raising bilingual children has been much harder than I had anticipated. It is especially hard when I’m trying to get them to tell me about what they learned in school as all the new vocabulary is in English. It would be so much easier to just carry out the conversation in English but then, I would lose the opportunity to give them what I consider an amazing gift.

I had thought that when my daughter went to school full time, I was going to teach her the alphabet and how to read and write in Spanish simultaneously as she learned the skills in English. In reality, that method proofed to be a little harder than what I had anticipated.

It was that first teacher evaluation in kindergarten with an annexed note stating that she needed extra help, what made me realized that I was probably pushing my little girl too hard. She was getting the phonetics of both languages mixed up and needed extra help at school to master the alphabet in English.

I have stopped actively teaching her Spanish but continue to draw a very defined line between the languages. Outside of the house and with school-related activities, we speak English, everything that is exchanged between the family members, must be done in Spanish -even when it takes a little prompting from me. Once she masters how to read in English, I will start my quest of teaching her how to do the same in Spanish. In the mean time, I do not want to impose on her something that she has shown me she’s not ready for.

I have come to realize that school is more than just the academics, and though I would still prefer my children to be at the top of their class, what is most important to me at this point is for my daughter to feel confident, to learn how to maneuver the ups and downs of friendship and to have an overall positive experience at school. That is why at the parent-teacher conferences this week my questions will center around her well-being -I’m sure her teacher will focus on the academics in all cases.

Wish me luck at the conference!

 

Let’s Go Have an Adventure August 19, 2015

Who has watched the Disney movie UP without being moved by it at least once? The first time I watched it, I was dealing with infertility. So the part where they show you their shattered dream of becoming parents really got to me. I mean, I was sobbing in the movie theater, unable to control myself. The nice relationship of a married couple, the heartbreak of loosing the person who you love most in this world, the kept promises and the openness to new relationships (with Russel)… I mean, the movie is a tear jerker.

I had not wanted to re-watch it, however, over the weekend, the kids chose that same film for movie night. I thought I could handle it. But the truth is that I couldn’t watch it without crying. There are just so many things that one can relate to. Perhaps the most touching for me this time, was the very cute album made by Ellie as a little girl with her dreamed adventures that she never got to live herself. This specifically got to me because of the recent passing of my maternal grandpa. Yes, very cliché, but life is too short not to try to reach our goals and live our dreams. I did like however, the spin they put on it as she told her husband through the same album that her life with him had been the best adventure.

I type this and I can’t help it but to get teary eyed… Seriously. I think we all have dreams that we end up putting aside because other things come along. My husband and I have always had this burning desire to travel but, when we were first married, we couldn’t really afford to go anywhere. We had to be content listening to our friends’ stories and awaiting for their pictures of their adventurous travels to pop up on Facebook.

We would soak up all the information and make our mental plans of the places we would like to go; however, by the time we were in a comfortable position to travel, our children had arrived. We could have just continued dreaming and seeing the opportunities to travel just pass us by, like in the movie UP, or we could just be crazy and travel with babies, and toddlers and diapers and just go. And that is exactly what we have been doing at every chance we can. Opportunities are too few to be wasted. Carpe Diem!

Listen, if you have been thinking about doing something or going somewhere and you don’t because you have children that you would have to take along, just do it! Don’t overthink it, just over-plan it. In all honesty, it is hard and stressful to manage kids in airports and to shuttle them around places. But is so worth it and a true adventure. If you had asked for advice before and people have told you that taking your toddler to Europe, for example, is a waste of your money because they won’t appreciate it, don’t listen to them. Listen to your travel instinct. We did earlier this summer and we have no regrets.

We were invited to a friend’s wedding in an island in the northern part of France. This friend had come to our wedding in Mexico and we thought, why not go and make it a couple’s-getaway type of trip? But when my mother couldn’t come to stay with the children, we decided to just go with a five, three and one year-old and experience France. La vie est belle and one must live it to experience all of its beauty.

Now, when you travel with children, you do have to adjust your expectations as far as site-seeing goes, but I am not exaggerating (my friend who traveled with us is my witness), when I tell you that my two older where jumping of excitement at the first sight of the Eiffel Tower. Sure, I had prepped my kids for this trip by watching all kinds of movies and reading all kinds of books based in Paris. They also get a monthly subscription called Little Passports that teaches them about a different county every month and France had already been one of the countries. We have also traveled to Mexico and Lebanon to visit family, therefore, they were no strangers to airports and long travels.

I had to do lots of research of places where we could take them to run around between one attraction to the next, and even though my kids may not have appreciated the centennial history of Notre Dame, they were still in awe of its majesty and beauty. They also recognized the image of the Lady of Guadalupe inside the cathedral and were very curious about the gargoyles. They may not have appreciated the artwork displayed at the Louvre (which is why we didn’t go in this time), but as we walked by it, they recognized that it was “the house of Mona Lisa”, as they put it.

Kids CAN appreciate and have the capacity to learn from every situation. You just have to make a conscientious effort of getting to their level. If you are as lucky as we were, they may even let you sit down for coffee hour every day, so long you buy a colorful macaron for them.

Going back to UP, if you have dreamed of traveling somewhere and an opportunity comes along. Take it without hesitation and before is too late. Though life when you experience it along your greatest loves is an adventure on itself, pursuing and reaching dreams together makes for a prettier photo album at the end.