Being Bilingual with Maritere Rodriguez Bellas

We recently caught up with fellow contributor and seasoned Latina boomer mom, Maritere Rodriguez Bellas on her new book: Arroz con Pollo and Apple Pie: Raising Bicultural Children. You can read part one of the interview here. In part two, we talk about the nitty gritty of how language plays a part in the bicultural experience, and why it’s important for kids to be able to understand and say the words arroz con pollo and apple pie.

HipLatina: Your first book was called Raising Bilingual Children. Do you think you can separate the experiences of being bilingual and bicultural?

Maritere Rodriguez Bellas: I actually wrote the manuscript on raising bicultural children about 10 or 12 years agoafter my column had been running for several years in La Opinión. Four years ago, I was at a writer’s conference in New York and I presented my manuscript to a few agents. I found an agent, and a few months later I got an email from her saying that there was a top publisher interested in my work. They said that because of all the research that had been done recently on language and the effects on the brain, they wanted to publish a book on the benefits of raising bilingual childrenand they wanted me to write it!

HL: Wow, so that started a whole new project for you!

MB: Well, I tried to talk to them about just expanding the chapter I had written on language in my original manuscript, since language and culture go hand in hand. But they really wanted to focus on the language aspect with a separate book. I have to say that after writing it, I realized that it had been such a great idea. I was able to talk to families specifically about language. I spoke with families from many different countries. I made it more universal. It became a resource with a lot of information on how to raise children to be bilingual, or even multilingual.

Maritere Rodriguez Bellas HipLatina
Maritere Rodriguez Bellas

HL: Talking about your story, you mention that your kids speak Spanish at home though not as often as you like. What would you have changed about this?

MB: In my case, which I talk about in both books, when you have a family where the mom or dad doesn’t speak your native language, you tend to resort to English and that’s what happened to me. I wanted my husband to participate in whatever conversation I was having and he didn’t speak Spanish. I now realize after doing all of the research on language that I was doing it all wrong. I should have never spoken to my kids in anything except Spanish until they were at least about 8 years old. By then it’s pretty ingrained and they can become very fluent.

HL: Does one of your kids have a better handle on Spanish than the other? Why do you think that is?

MB: I think they are just different. My son got more of the conversational aspect growing up and can carry out a conversation pretty well. My daughter got more of the grammar and writing at school. During her study abroad she spent almost five months in Spain and is now more fluent.  Since they were used to me speaking to them in Spanish when they were little, their first words were in Spanish and I have fond memories of them turning to me and speaking in Spanish and turning to their dad and speaking to him in English. I was in awe of how easy they would go back and forth without flinching! That is my hope for every parent out there, that they understand the value and the gift of raising kids with two or more languages.

HL: In some of your stories, you mention that children may be resistant to speaking Spanish once they start going to school and become friends with English speaking children. As more Spanish is being spoken in the United States, do you think it’s getting easier for parents to raise their children to speak both languages?

MB: Definitely. There are a lot more American born teachers that study Spanish and they’re willing to help Spanish speaking parents. All of the research that has been done over the last 10 to 15 years has really helped parents understand the value of being fluent in more than one language. In my generation, parents wanted their kids to assimilate as quickly as possible so they only wanted their children to learn English and very often Spanish was not even spoken at home.  When I did the research on raising bilingual children, I spoke with several principals at dual language immersion schools. I found out that in many of these schools today, there is a long waiting list of American children whose parents recognized the importance of learning Spanish. Ironically, the biggest obstacle for the school officials is convincing Spanish speaking parents that this form of education works since those parents wanted to put their children on the English only track instead of incorporating Spanish as well.   

HL: One story you share at the end of the book on bicultural children is about a Chinese immigrant, Pocket Sun. In your book on raising bilingual children, you mentioned that the message was more universal for other countries and cultures. Do you think your advice on raising bicultural and bilingual children applies to non-Latino cultures as well?

MB: That’s a funny story. I think that she found me on Twitter and then she started following me. I looked her up and her story fascinated me. I told her about my book and asked if she wanted to be a part of it. I think that my message really applies to any culture so that’s why I included her at the end. I remember sending her the same set of questions that I sent to the Latino community. I interviewed her and her responses really fit in with what the Latino immigrants were sharing. It’s a universal thing. It doesn’t matter where we’re from. We all need to adjust to a new life and find a balance. Some of us adjust faster than others and some of us never adjust, which is okay. As long as you can live with that.

HL: I’m excited to hear about what’s next for you! What do you have planned?

MB: I’m excited about Arroz con Pollo and Apple Pie:Raising Bicultural Children being published in Spanish by this fall. And I am working on a series of three bilingual children’s books. That should keep me busy for a while!

Visit Mari’s website for her latest updates and to purchase both of her books.

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