More parents than ever are choosing to raise their children multilingual, thanks in part to the resources that many in the bilingual parenting sphere have been creating for years. Those invested in bilingual child-rearing often speak to the positive effects such as the promotion of diversity, cross-cultural understanding, tolerance and more. But what of those trailblazers who took on a bulk of the earlier challenges to make this reality possible?
In this installment of our “6 Questions With” series, we spoke with Maritere Bellas, award-winning author, bilingual and bicultural parenting expert and speaker. She’s the author of the parenting self-help books Raising Bilingual Children/Cómo Criar Niños Bilingues and Arroz con Pollo and Apple Pie: Raising Bicultural Children, and is a huge advocate for bilingualism and the impact it can have on the greater good.
We asked Bellas about the challenges and victories of raising bilingual children, her language-learning epiphany in Europe and how she turned a formerly monolingual school district into a leader of the multilingual pack.
1. So, you’ve published two self-help books on bilingual and bicultural parenting and have another one forthcoming. How does the newest book stand apart from the others in terms of what it brings to the table?
BELLAS: Raising Bilingual Children was my first book and it was published in English and in Spanish by Simon & Schuster, and because it was an eBook I realized pretty quickly when I started going to conferences and book festivals and book fairs and speaking engagements that I needed to have a book for people to walk away with. So, I had the manuscript already finished for the Arroz Con Pollo and Apple Pie book and I went ahead and self-published that.
The new book that is coming out in a couple of months, it’s a bilingual children’s book, it’s for ages four to seven, and it will introduce me to the bilingual children’s book world. The book is called Luisito’s Island, and La Isla de Luisito. It’s about a little boy that has to move to the United States because the hurricane damaged his house and he makes new friends and tells his friends about the things that he misses about Puerto Rico, and the illustrations will show five or six important things about Puerto Rico that the kids will learn about when they read the book.
2. This book really pivots to a much larger audience. How has raising your own children impacted your writing and teachings?
BELLAS: I raised two bilingual children with two languages — Spanish and English — and three cultures (my husband is Greek-American). I started writing a Spanish column directed to the immigrant parent that was living in the United States because I lived that when I was having children. There was very little information about trying to find the balance and nurturing the native culture and the language. And I had worked at La Opinion newspaper in Los Angeles in public relations, and when I left I had a great relationship with the editor who then became the publisher. She and I were having kids around the same time and we would search for information about balancing the two cultures and there was none in libraries or bookstores.
Today, there are so many wonderful resources for parents, but back then, twenty years ago, they didn’t have those. That is how my column started and it ran in the paper for eleven, twelve years. At the same time, I was writing little articles for Ser Padres and Healthy Kids en Español. With my column, I kind of became the Latino voice for parents, raising children with two or more languages and two or more cultures. I was on a mission to help parents find a balance between the culture they left behind and the culture they were adopting and to help their children adjust to both cultures. Now my kids are adults, young adults, so they are a good example of the benefits of being raised bilingual and tri-cultural.
3. Were there any challenges and/or victories that you experienced while you were raising [your children], especially raising them multi-cultural?
BELLAS: It was a challenge, but I think the most important thing is that parents are committed to doing it. It’s not easy, it wasn’t easy especially in my case because my husband did not speak Spanish. I wanted him to be part of the conversations that I was having with the kids and I found myself having to translate a lot. There were times when I wasn’t as successful and I would turn to English, so the kids kind of knew pretty quickly that I spoke English even though I spoke Spanish with them. Keeping the native language is a challenge but I was committed and determined.
I always felt like my kids would be better people because they were raised with different cultures…tolerant, compassionate, empathetic; all those great values that you instill in your children
We were in an area that was predominantly monolingual. The school that they were going to was a monolingual, English-dominant school and my children were probably the first brown faces in there. Fast forward all these years, it’s more diverse. There were a couple of English-dominant moms that understood the value of being bilingual and the three of us fought hard with the school system to make Spanish a part of the curriculum. It took us eight years, but to this day, almost 15 years ago since then, Spanish is taught at the school. Which is one of the things that I mention in my book, about encouraging parents to be advocates for language, and if schools don’t have it, just go ahead and try to make it happen. Don’t be afraid to make it happen.
I always felt like my kids would be better people because they were raised with different cultures, and from the beginning they understood; they didn’t see people as different, they appreciated the different backgrounds and costumes, and today I feel that they are the people they are because of that upbringing: tolerant, compassionate, empathetic, inclusive; you know, all those great values that we try to instill in our children. Having raised my children to appreciate diversity contributed to the people they are today.
4. It sounds like you had a strong, supportive community of parents with the same values. That must’ve really helped.
BELLAS: It was great, and to this day, I’m so grateful to them. They soon came to realize the benefits and the advantages of being fluent in two languages. I started in that journey when my son was in kindergarten, almost going into the first grade, so he did not benefit from Spanish being part of the curriculum, because by the time it was implemented he was going to high school. But, my daughter did benefit and every child thereafter! I mean, I did it for my kids but I did it for everyone’s kids. I knew at some point we would succeed even though it would take a long time, and I just wanted everyone’s kids to benefit and I wanted the parents to understand the value. I grew up in Puerto Rico. I went to a school run by nuns who were from the United States; they only spoke English, so by the time I graduated from high school I was completely bilingual. There was not a big issue about it, that was just the way it was, they spoke English so you had to. There was an understanding of the importance of going out into the world and communicating in two languages, but I chose to go to school in Switzerland to further study languages. I fell in love with the English language, and with French and Italian. Languages came easily to me. So, I decided that’s what I wanted to study.
5. That’s indicative of a lot more parents here realizing those benefits and choosing to raise their children bilingual and multilingual. A lot of those parents are monolingual and some of them are choosing to learn a language while raising their children. Do you have any advice for those parents?
BELLAS: I cannot tell you how helpful that is. Because it encourages the child — they see the parents wanting to learn the language and then that gives them more motivation. Like, “Whoa, my mom and dad want to learn a language, I should too.” In my research, I spoke to a couple of schools, one of the school districts here, and this was about five years ago, and the list of monolingual parents trying to get their kids into dual immersion schools was a mile long. It was great, even today. It’s a gift we give our children. Don’t give it up.
6. In your books, you talk a lot about including cultural knowledge in bilingual parenting practices. Why is that culture facet so important, in your opinion?
BELLAS: Language is the number one thing that brings cultures together, and they go hand in hand. To be honest, when Simon & Schuster wanted to do this eBook, Raising Bilingual Children/Cómo Criar Niños Bilingues, I had already finished my manuscript for Arroz Con Pollo and Apple Pie; Raising Bicultural Children, and though this book is more about culture, there was a whole chapter dedicated to language. But, at that time, about 5 years ago, there were many studies coming out about the multilingual brain and the benefits of being fluent in many languages and the publisher decided they wanted a book only on languages. I had to go back to the drawing board and design how I was going to write that book and if I wanted to do it the same way, by interviewing families, which I thought was the right way to do it. It worked out. It was a great experience writing it and meeting all these parents and learning about their language journey and figuring out suggestions on how to do it to help parents.
One great story: an Indian couple ended up in California and made their lives here right around where I live. In their younger years, both of them studied in a South America country and they became fluent in Spanish. When they had two daughters, they decided that their daughters’ first language was going to be Spanish and their second language was going to be English. And so I interviewed them for my book and I asked them, “Why are you doing this? I mean, don’t you want them to learn Marathi? And all these other languages or dialects from your country?” Their answer: “No one here speaks that language. Everyone in the United States speaks Spanish and English, and we want the girls to be fluent in both.” And they’ll get words here and there in the other Indian dialects with their grandparents. The beauty of it was not only that they are committed to their language journey, but that they were able to get the whole family on board.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Click here to read the full transcript.