Sink or Swim: Teaching and Learning a Second Language

Written by Michelle

(á, é, í, ó, ú, ü, ñ, ¿, ¡)

When I lived in Puerto Rico, I was enrolled in a bilingual school. My mother still shares with me how much I disliked my first days there: how I cried at the thought of setting foot into an English-only classroom, and how I hated the mere thought of having to speak another language. Nevertheless, English, my second language, introduced me to a country, a culture, a husband, my family. My everything. Everything I value most.

I entered a classroom at the age of seven where English was spoken 100% of the time. It was sink or swim, a hard concept to understand and perhaps not the most “sound” option for all parents.

My friends and I all spoke Spanish as our first language. My textbooks, tests, assessments and reports on the other hand, were ALL in English. We were asked, graded, and assessed in our communication of our second language. Unless, of course, we were in Spanish class.

Although not the most positive experience at first, by the end of my first grade I had begun “swimming” in the seas of a second language. My classroom felt like home and speaking another language during classes was my norm. I have never known any different.

I really wish my children would be experiencing the same.

When my husband and I dated, we talked of our future. We envisioned little ones running around speaking two languages, switching on and off like it was second nature. Sadly, this is not my reality, and I’m mostly at fault.

With the birth of every child, I grew excited at the thought of reading, speaking, listening to all things Spanish-related. I dreamed of creative Spanish lessons, days filled with speaking to my children as they grew anxious to know, learn and speak more of my native tongue. But just like New Year’s resolutions dwindle,  every year the goal of teaching them a foreign language becomes harder. Weaving these lessons into our daily routine is just not as simple as I thought.

I DO speak to my children in Spanish, yet it’s sporadic and inconsistent. The lessons, quite erratic.  Most of the time, when my kids hear Spanish, I’m reprimanding them (true Latina mother at her best) or we’re visiting our family in Puerto Rico. Both are infrequent.


When people ask me if my kids are fluent, I have to answer no. I’m not sure if it hurts more to answer that question as a Spanish teacher or as a Spanish-speaking mother.

In the eyes of Spanish or second language speaking parents perhaps I have failed the “language portion” of parenting. Yet, I really don’t feel as if I have. The short, erratic outbursts of my kids’ Spanish fill our hearts with joy and our homes with laughter.

How could you go wrong when your daily Spanish vocabulary consists of:

no se toca… Don’t touch that

un momento…one moment

Siéntate, ahora! …Sit down, now!

Más besos, por favor…More kisses please

Dame un abrazo…Give me a hug

Dame un besito…Give me a small kiss

Buenas Noches,Te quiero mucho…I love you (a lot)

Tu eres mi ángel…you are my angel

What our kids know thus far seems to be the most endearing terms. At least, to us.

The way they say phrases in Spanish when we least expect them, but when we most need to hear them, fills our heart with love and hope. We chuckle when they smile and nod in clueless unison. We smile from ear to ear when they can truly understand their cousins, aunts and grandparents when we visit them in Puerto Rico.


They might not be fluent, but they are definitely not sinking.

They might not get everything, but we like to think they get what matters the most.


Categories: Family

Tags: , , , , ,

8 replies

  1. I still say If I were going to live in another country? id sure as heck would want to learn their native language, wouldn’t you?

    • I commend people who value wanting to learn a second language. Looking back, I’m so blessed. It’s a challenging journey, but one that can only make you grow.

    • I commend people who value wanting to learn a second language. Looking back, I’m so blessed. It’s a challenging journey, but one that can only make you grow.

      • I never said its not a good thing to learn a second language what I did say in response with what I see in this country? My dads bank employs one guy to do only accounts with Spanish folk who don’t speak English? again why not learn English?

  2. So much to say on this post…I’m pretty good about speaking French to my son, but as he talks more, it’s 90% in English, which is normal. I affirm what he’s saying, but it’s challenging for me to make the language switch and do it en francais. He understands everything, though! I love hearing what Spanish phrases your kids use 🙂

    • I always feel guilty that I’m a Spanish teacher, but my kids don’t know Spanish either. Rowan knows “aqua” lol and I was teaching Bella Spanish 4 years ago, but then the second child came and now the third and things just get pushed to the side, like me teaching them Spanish. Someday, I say, someday, when I have the time, patience and energy…

    • It is so neat to hear them and realize how much they know. You might be surprised as how much your son know and perhaps doesn’t verbalize. Did you study abroad? I only took french as a second language and although I liked it I didn’t pick it up as fast.

  3. I’ll bet they know more than you think, but regardless, the phrases that are commonly used around your house are just the sweetest! Great post with lots of sweet insight!

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