'Mama, would you please speak English!'
Bilingual parents don't always have an easy time leading their kids to be bilingual.
February 28th, 2012
10:22 AM ET

'Mama, would you please speak English!'

Editor's note: Rose Arce is a senior producer at CNN and a contributor to Mamiverse, a website for Latinas and their families.

By Rose Arce, CNN

(CNN) - I am sitting in the North Charleston Coliseum in South Carolina ensconced in a piece of pure Americana. A CNN debate between the Republican presidential candidates is unfolding beneath a sea of cardboard red, white and blue stars and stripes.

"I favor English as the official language of government and I think that creates a continuity," Newt Gingrich says, punching away at his opponent before a roaring crowd of Southern Republicans.

There was continuity weeks later at the CNN debate in Jacksonville, Florida, where nearly a quarter of the population is Hispanic. "I also believe that in our schools, we should teach kids in English," Mitt Romney says to thunderous applause.

What American - Latino or not - wouldn't applaud for teaching kids to speak English in U.S. schools? I slouch into my seat and wait for the good part, when the sparks of partisanship flare up over the details of what "English Only" means. But, when these go mano-a-mano in the language wars, these guys got nothing on the 40 inch, 35 pound adversary I fight each day.

"Mama, would you please speak English! We live in America," 6-year-old Luna yells at the breakfast table. You see, while the broad national debate is about English Only, in my 1,000 square feet of America, it's Spanish that's causing all the stir.

Luna only spoke Spanish for her first few years, our feeble attempt to make her bilingual in a home with two parents who are fully bilingual. Like generations of Americans with roots in other countries, we thought it would be an asset for her to learn a second language. Then preschool introduced English, but who would push back against the cuteness of bilingual baby talk. By Kindergarten she had drawn the line in the sand. She wanted to speak only the language of her people – the other 5-year-olds in Room K210.

At first we pretended not to hear her and she'd switch back to Spanish. But every time we talked to other people in English, she would lose patience with us. Then we started to respond in Spanish to her questions in English, which led to dumb exchanges like this one: "Hey Mama, you dudes want to hang out at the park today." (Just to give you a visual, she always puts her hands on her hips when she says "dudes.") "Si mi amor," this dude would respond. The next stage sent us South. Say Hola to Spanglish! "Yo quiero peanut butter sandwich en my lunchera, Mami."

We laid down the law:

"Luna, hablame en español."
"NO way. What's with all the Spanish?"
"Es divino hablar ingles y español."
"Great, so you speak both."
"I do already. I want you to speak both."
"Haha. See you're speaking English."
"Luna, por favor. Si hablas español vas a poder hablar con mas gente."
"This is America. Gente should be speaking English."

That settled it. I would become Mama Newt Gingrich. Our house was going Spanish Only. We would not be the parents paying somebody to teach our kid Spanish in High School. We would not be doing some Outward Bound summer trip to Costa Rica. BASTA!  Not raising Hannah Montana after giving birth to Dora the Explorer.

My Latina friends advised: "Just keep talking Spanish to her. Don't make it a fight." But two secretly admitted to shipping theirs off to grandparents in the Dominican Republic.

My own brother revealed that he threatened my niece with a Panamanian boarding school. We turned our attention to our beloved Rosanna, Luna's babysitter who speaks very little English. Not a word of English with Luna, we declare.

Within a week Luna claims to be giving Rosanna "English lessons." My mother comes to visit and I seize her as an ally. Within a day, Luna has her singing Barbie songs on her pink plastic karaoke machine. I blame my partner, who is from Colombia and has an accent.

"It's your native tongue," I say. "Make her talk it!" Luna begins mocking her accent. My partner put her hands on her own hips. So much for that.

We need government intervention. This whole English Only debate has sidestepped the problem bedeviling parents in our nation of immigrants - how do we get our freaking kids to speak the family's native tongue? I waltz into her public school and ask about Spanish class. They offer French in afterschool! OK, French.


"But no one signed up." Ugh. This isn't just about bilingualism; American culture reveres its roots! We are the gorgeous mosaic! A beautiful quilt! Ellis Island, United Nations, the endless St. Patrick's Day parade. We got more taquerias than Tijuana; can't we teach some foreign language to our kids? At the next debate the word English gets repeated 11 times in a state where a 20% of the population speaks Spanish at home. Clearly, I'm on my own with this one.

I pick up a T-shirt at an airport that says "Se Habla Español" and toss it among her clothes. She barely notices. My cousins visit from Peru; their kids speak perfect English. We make a playdate with an anglo kid who is fast becoming fluent. We go to family parties and everyone is joking around in Spanish, but her. I feel my family history slipping away. This is about so much more than language.

The first signs I get that this is turning around come when we travel to visit family in Puerto Rico and Colombia, where my partner was born. Suddenly, Spanish is in the air. Luna shyly chats up her cousins. She orders papas fritas (French fries). She runs on the beach yelling, "Conchas, conchas," shells. When we get back, I sneak in at night while Rosanna is getting her ready for bed. She is chattering in Español. Rosanna grins as I write her weekly check.

But it doesn't really come together until I get the call. This time I'm on the road covering the Republican primary. "Hola Mama," her tiny voice says into my cell phone. "Cuando vienes? Yo te extraño?"

"I'll be home soon. I miss you too," I say in English, deciding not to press my luck.

"Te quiero mas que las estrellas y la luna, Mama."

"You love me more than the stars and moon?! Me too amor."

"Can you bring me something from your trip Mama?"


The opinions expressed are solely those of Rose Arce.

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Filed under: Family • Language • Latino in America • Politics • What we think
soundoff (704 Responses)
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    September 15, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Paolo

    I agree with people here that being multilingual offers lots of opportunities. I am blessed to be from a family of mixed cultures – Filipino and Spanish. In the Philippines, English is the medium of instruction at all school levels. The National language, Tagalog, is only taught as a subject in school. Out in public, people use Tagalog, or English if the two conversants speak different native dialects that are not similar at all. And if your family has Spanish heritage, you will be speaking Castillian at home. Growing up, my father had always said that if we were to talk in English, talk like the Americans do; and Castillian like the Spanish do. Knowing three languages has definitely helped me establish a good life in Texas, have a great career and live the American dream.

    Languages are like keys, the more you have, the more doors you will be able to open!!!

    May 15, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Fact checker

    It's common in Europe to be bilingual as a second language is often required in schools. In Germany, my broken German was met with kind laughter and "We speak English, it's okay!" My friend there told me that it's not unusual to speak even 3 languages. Pity that doesn't happen here; everyone should challenge their minds and learn about other cultures.

    March 28, 2012 at 12:28 am | Report abuse |
  6. Rich

    There can not possibly be a down side to being bilingual and you had me completely on your side until you said "They offer French in afterschool! OK, French. Whatever."

    March 24, 2012 at 6:44 am | Report abuse |
  7. TheMOM

    We have Czech, Italian, Polish, and German in our family – guess how many languages I speak? One – English. My great-grandmother immigrated from Czechoslovakia and struggled to learn English, but I never heard her speak any other language. I wish our family had been able to hang on to those pieces of our history.

    March 21, 2012 at 7:57 am | Report abuse |
  8. Andrea

    I am a Colombian native and my daugther's father is from Puerto Rico. My main goal is to make sure my daugther is full bilingual. She is four years old and she does speaks both languages and understand the importance of both. She even told me that would like to learn french, since most of the movies you can select the language to speak, she puts them in english,spanish, and sometimes french just because she wants to learn. It is very important that kids learned a second language and if we can help them to learned both,, why not. My nice whe she was little always told us this is America,, speak english,,, we always told her ,, at the house,, we would always speak only spanish,, you must learn,,and she refused. Now, she is 15 years old,, and wishes that we would have force her to learn the second language,, she wishes that she speaks spanish too.

    March 20, 2012 at 10:01 am | Report abuse |
  9. Viejopanameno

    Mexican American Studies in Tuscon schools taught them that all whites are racist and hate Mexicans. There is nothing wrong with teaching Mexcan History in US Schools. I took Russian history in school.

    March 16, 2012 at 12:49 am | Report abuse |

      BS. Cite your sources.

      March 18, 2012 at 9:17 pm | Report abuse |
      • Jack

        I second that

        March 23, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Leila

    Born into an Italian family, my grandparents spoke 2 dialects of Italian. My father could speak Italian as well. However, he and my mother forbade us from speaking Italian at all. Now I am 49 years old and I am handicapped whenever I visit Italy because I do not know the language. Americans are the worst offenders when it comes to languages. In Europe, the Germans can speak not only English, but also French and Italian. The French can speak Latin and Spanish. The Italians can speak Spanish and Latin. The schools emphasize languages in Europe and they are better off for it. Now I have to pay thousands to learn a language I was born with.

    March 15, 2012 at 10:37 am | Report abuse |
    • Petra

      wow wow wow... Big mistake! Germans only speak German. Italians only speak italian, French only speak french and the Spanish speak only spanish. The french part of Switzerland speaks french and the German part german. The only true bilinguals in Europe are the Dutch, and the Scandinavians!

      May 17, 2012 at 11:19 am | Report abuse |
  11. Levedi

    Keep up the good work! Your daughter will be richer for it in the long run – and I say this as a monolingual English speaker of Anglo-Irish descent. Ignore the people who accuse you of not assimilating. A colleague of mine is married to a Dutch woman and so only Dutch is spoken in their house by the parents – they wanted their kids to be at least bilingual. The kids all went through the "geez Mom, you're so lame! I only speak English" phase too. Now they can shift from one language to another at the drop of a hat and are comfortable learning new languages. They also travel well because foreign languages don't scare them. The whole family is all thoroughly American and happy that way, but they have their Dutch heritage to enjoy as well.

    March 11, 2012 at 6:21 am | Report abuse |
  12. aj

    In a country founded by secular white english speakers, I'm amazed at what we've evolved into. It's a good tolerant thing.

    March 8, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
  13. FlyGuyinSJ

    Luna will probably never be fully bilingual. I'm bilingual and and also have limited proficiency in my wife's first language, my wife is bilingual (although English is the only language in common). Our kids are reasonably proficient in her language. They don't speak my other language at all because my wife doesn't so it just doesn't get used in our home. They'll never be as good as native speakers of her language, but they have decent communicative competence. I'm quite sure our grandchildren will be monolingual English speakers. That's how it is, that's how it's always been. Kids take the language of the country they immigrate to (or are born in) as their native and primary language.

    March 8, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Marcello

    Why not just have English be the primary language and Spanish be the secondary language?? Many countries support two languages, thats why so many Filipinos speak Tagalog and English. Same with in Israel, they speak Hebrew and English. It allows for more opportunity. English and Spanish are the two most prominent languages in the Americas so why not just learn both? At this point in time I think its a disservice to NOT teach our youth both of these languages.

    March 8, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Legal Minority

      Wow Marcello how unselfish and generous of you make English the primary and SPANISH gets to be secondary languages to be taught, yes why not privelege spanish speakers over other languages, forget the immigrants that speak chinese, vietnamese, haitian creole, ibo, yoruba, hindi, tamil, portugese, etc,

      It amazing how emboldening the kindness of the nation's treatment of hispanic immigrants, has let them feel they can push their language and culture on the rest of us, just because of their numbers, which is a typically hypocritial response as since English at present is the language of the majority (and the establishing language of this country) it should be spoken without any need for negotiations on what else should be spoken too, that should be a individual decision whether you want to be monolingual or bilingual (on your own dime, stop the bilingual programs that create divisions instead of making Americans!)

      March 23, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Alex Ventimilla

    You're looking at this from the wrong point of view. Maybe I can enlighten you a bit:

    I'm an American born to Mexican parents, what most of you would call a Mexican-American. I grew up in a household where I had to experience what little Luna up there is going through right now; parents who "forced" their native language onto me like an old t-shirt of theirs that I refused to wear. At home, my mom would simply ignore me if I talked to her in English and my dad would not get me anything to eat unless I told him what I wanted in a detailed, well structured Spanish sentence. I hated it.
    Needless to say, this only got worse as I got older. I was embarassed to speak Spanish at home whenever my friends came over to hang out, dreading the stares and awkward comments like "what did your mom say?" or "are you talking about me?". As a teenager, living in a household in which a language other than English is spoken can be very stressing. Things changed dramatically once I was out of high school though. First, I discovered that speaking Spanish was an advantage when looking for work, and I'm happy to say that I have not been unemployed since I was 18. Second, in college I chose to major in Journalism, which required foreign language credits. I did not take Spanish (I chose Italian, in which I am now fluent), but I'm pretty certain that the reason why I became proficient so quickly was because I already spoke 2 languages to begin with. And finally, I started traveling.
    First I spent a semester abroad in Germany. Suddenly I was surrounded by people who spoke 3 or 4 languages, Europeans who had been educated in foreign languages ever since they were in kindergarten, and who took pride, not shame, in their ability to communicate with people in more than one tongue. Then, two years ago, I decided to come to Europe once more, this time to the Czech Republic, to teach English as many other Americans do upon graduating college. Once more, I've been gladly surprised at the proficiency of Europeans in foreign languages; it is not uncommon to find people who speak 3, 4 or 5 languages. Unfortunately, I've also discovered that this is never the case for Americans. Sadly, our educational system is in the dark ages when it comes to foreign languages, and seldom have I ever encountered Americans who speak another language. As an American, I'm happy to say that I can break the stereotype about us being ignorant of foreign cultures and tongues. But I must also admit that I am almost certainly the exception, not the rule. As an American, I would like to see this change, not because I believe that English shouldn't be the official language (most European countries HAVE an official language), but because I believe that foreign language education, whether through parents who are speakers of other languages or through the school system, should be considered of utmost importance in this globalized world of ours.

    March 8, 2012 at 10:30 am | Report abuse |
    • Jorge

      I wholeheartedly agree with you Alex, as I, also being the child of an obligatory bilingual upbringing, have reaped it's unforseen rewards throughout my life, having found it much easier to also learn French than if I had only spoken English. Unfortunately for them, the fear of learning and cliquish codependence did not wear off after adolescence for some, and they will forever loathe change.

      March 9, 2012 at 8:03 am | Report abuse |
  16. The Vanilla Bean

    THE SPIRIT OF ANASTACIO HERNANDEZ, KILLED BY THE BORDER PATROL- racism can come from both sides. By you acting like Mexicans are sooo great, is the same as white people thinking they (white people) are sooo great. You spread love and understanding and you will start to see it in return. I'm sorry if your family member or friend was killed by the border patrol, but that was by someone awful, not the rest of America. Bad people do things everyday, but you can't hold everyone else accountable.

    March 8, 2012 at 2:07 am | Report abuse |
  17. lili

    Spirit, you sound as if the Spanish language and Spanish speaking people in this country should get special attention. America is a melting pot. What would happen if every single race and ethnicity here demanded the same things that you want? We wouldn't have any cohesion or unity or expression as being Americans. I am eight different nationalities, one of them being Spanish. I love the language and have studied it, but it doesn't take precedence over my other seven. I am not gifted enough to learn eight different languages, nor do I have the time or desire to try to promote all of my races and ethnicities. I am American first. English is the official language of this country, the only exception being in Hawaii, where Hawaiian is also an official language. I think it would behoove Americans to learn other foreign languages, as many Europeans do. But I think it should be up to each individual as to what second language they choose to learn. Speaking Spanish is great, as there are a lot of Spanish speaking people in this country, but I don't believe it should replace English in any way...and that means, I believe that Spanish speaking children should learn to speak, read and write English well first, as citizens of the U.S. It sounds as if you want to replace English with Spanish, and why? If I went to a foreign country, I would expect to have to learn their language. I wouldn't expect them to speak mine. I wouldn't expect them to teach me history about my country. I mean, how would you like it if Americans went to Mexico and started pushing their language on Mexican children in school? And you are right that there is racism is this country. I don't approve of it, but I don't confuse preserving the official language as a denigration of another. Maybe one day Spanish will be the official language of this country. Will that make you any happier as a human being; will that improve core communication with all people? So what will you do when the Chinese call in on our debts and start insisting that we speak Mandarin Chinese? I am also Chinese, so I would be represented there, too. Should my Spanish heritage fight with my Chinese? Or my many other European blood? It's all very silly, but it does serve to keep people at each other's throats and thereby lacking in effective, cohesive society. Why do you insist on harping on the differences when it is from the commonalities that we make progress? I am sorry to hear that Tucson has banned Mexican-American studies. That's history of the area. I grew up in NJ, and we learned about the Dutch, who settled so much of that state. You sound as if you hate America as it is, but in your last line, "then, the other ethnic groups will have to do some 'assimilating' of their own," you sound as if you would force your own brand of Spanish America down everyone else's throats. That sounds like hypocrisy to me.

    March 7, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Report abuse |

      My position is clear: In areas with a strong Hispanic presence, Spanish should be as respected and used as English and just as Hispanics are expected to learn English, non-Spanish speakers should be expected to learn Spanish. Should this apply to other ethnic groups, sure, if they care to defend their culture and language and their dignity, but those are cultural fights for them to fight. My issue is with the English Only bigots like Santorum and the rest of the right wing radicals. You may add your little commentaries and criticisms, but when Hispanics become a majority it will be timethe present majority (whites) to start learning Spanish.

      March 18, 2012 at 10:40 pm | Report abuse |
  18. Sumo

    What I'm detecting here is a failure to assimilate. Why is it that modern immigrants are so resistant to this? When my family came to this country, they came with the intent of BECOMING Americans, and NOT trying to turn America into "the old country".

    Furthermore, what's the value in learning Spanish when everyone in this country worth talking to speaks English? I think the author is doing a great disservice to her child. Would you rather your daughter be a master of English with an extensive vocabulary, or just be "pretty good" at two different languages, one of which she only speaks around you?

    Stop being so selfish! You might have good intentions trying to "preserve your hertiage", but don't do it at your child's expense!

    March 7, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • djc

      She is doing her daughter a great favor. Employers already are wanting to hire only bi-lingual individuals. This childs age is perfect for absorbing both languages and will make her more intelligent not less. I applaud this mother. I am caucasian and I remember my mother (a nurse) trying to learn spanish back in the late 70s so she could help those who only spoke spanish. We need a little more acceptance in this country. The first person God created was not a white American.

      March 7, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • lili

      Sumo, I totally agree with your first paragraph. I think if people want to cling to their old country, language and customs so much, they should just stay in their country and stop trying to turn America into their old country. But some people come here as refugees from oppressive rulers, so maybe they don't want to be American as much as they want the freedom that comes with citizenship. Regardless, if you move to a new country, you shouldn't expect it to cater to your old way of life. I have to disagree with you in the second paragraph. That's such a narrow minded, ignorant statement that anyone worth talking to speaks English! People worth speaking to come in every form, race, ethnic group, color, religion and have valid views. Are you truly discounting everyone else??

      March 7, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob Cochran

      Furthermore, Susan, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to find that all four of them habitually smoke marijuana cigarettes.

      March 8, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jorge

      You assume that being a proper poliglot will limit the mastery of the main language, when exactly the opposite is true, the poor sots who bungle their expression by attempting to combine languages (Spanglish) do so because of a poor educational background and/or example at home, (which also applies to many heartland/rural U.S.-born with remedial redaction skills and hardly intelligible speech, by the way).

      March 9, 2012 at 8:13 am | Report abuse |
  19. Jeronima

    A propósito yo hablo y escribo castellano, portugués e Ingles. Y me siento orgullosa de los tres. Cero resentimientos.

    March 7, 2012 at 1:26 am | Report abuse |
  20. Jeronima

    Pobre Anastasio , estas resentido y amargo . Tu comentario solo muestra odio y tiranía. Así te duela y no lo quieras aceptar el ingles es la lengua oficial de EEUU, tienes que respetar y no puede imponer tus caprichos así como las demás personas deben respetar el lenguaje de tu país. No eres ni de aqui ni de alla.

    March 7, 2012 at 1:20 am | Report abuse |
  21. Jeronima

    It is sad to see many Hispanics, especially Mexicans that are living in this country and they don’t know how to write and speak their native language (Spanish), very well. So, you wonder if they have to speak English as a second language?

    March 7, 2012 at 1:13 am | Report abuse |
  22. som

    I grew up with a mexican parent and I despise everything about the culture and language. It's a terrible thing to force and threaten your children into taking interest in what you'd like them to. Shame.

    March 7, 2012 at 1:07 am | Report abuse |
  23. sam

    My people came from Hungary. We all speak english. my german frineds do not speak german. and so on........
    seems hispanics have the hardest time of letting it go.

    March 6, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marla

      A lot of German immigrants were around before WWI and there were many cities with German newspapers. But when WWI came along, the Germans were forced to assimilate. All things German were quickly dropped. The Spanish speaking community has not been forced to assimilate in the same way.

      March 7, 2012 at 11:52 am | Report abuse |
    • lili

      Spirit, why do you, who hates assumptions about Hispanics, assume that people with other backgrounds are idiots just because they may not speak those languages? I already told you I am eight different nationalities and I don't speak any of them fluently except for English...because I'm American. I have studied Spanish, French and German. I like trying to speak foreign languages, but I only speak a little French and a little Spanish. It helps when I travel to those countries that speak those languages. But I am not ignorant because I don't know everything about my "people." I am an American citizen and proud of it. I studied American history in school, and many other countries' histories on my own. So just because I don't speak all the languages does not render me an idiot. Not everyone cares as much about their heritage as you do, but that doesn't make them idiots. Maybe they have other interests that they care about much more. You're so judgmental!

      March 7, 2012 at 9:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jorge

      Sam, it's all well and good that your friends and you feel comfortable speaking only one language, but don't you think it just a little pretentious and out of bounds to expect others to diminish themselves culturally and intellectually for your sake???

      March 9, 2012 at 8:23 am | Report abuse |
  24. Doug

    This reminds me of all the times my wife will get berated by Latinos for not speaking Spanish and "being proud of her culture"...never mind the fact that my wife is actually of Korean/Anglo descent. AY YAY YAY!

    March 6, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Report abuse |
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