Growing up in a bilingual home

Full disclosure: if you are looking for an article written by someone who has successfully managed to raise their own children speaking multiple languages at home, then this is not that article.

However, I do have insider knowledge on this topic, as I was raised in a bilingual environment. My Spanish mother who raised her family in England, was determined that her children would speak her language.

Spanish + English = Spanglish

Myself and my sister did not make it easy for her. She would speak to us in Spanish and we would respond in English. And when it came to the four hours of Spanish classes after school each week, me or my sister having previously been in perfect health all day, suddenly felt way too sick to attend the extra language lessons.

For the record this approach rarely worked, but it was worth a try. If my mum happens to read this article: it was my sister’s idea, not mine! Also, for the record: forty something year old me is very glad she made us go, as it opened up a whole different world for me.


Having a second language has allowed me to travel off the beaten track, and make lifelong friends from other countries. But much to the disappointment of my family, whilst my mother managed to pass on her language skills to me, she failed to pass on her cooking skills as well.

But to be honest whilst my English friends might be impressed that I speak two languages, it is really not that amazing in a country like Malaysia, home to 137 different languages. I am always so impressed with how effortlessly so many Malaysians slip between two or even three languages without a second thought.

Please don’t think I haven’t tried to teach my children Spanish in so many different ways, but because it is easier for me to speak English, I failed. However, I have not given up. I have outsourced the teaching to the wonderful language department at their school!

Hidden benefits of speaking more than one language

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  • When you travel abroad, you can switch to your native language when you need to scold your children discreetly or beg them to behave, to make you look like a better parent. Just one example of when I have used it to my advantage, is when my children didn’t want to greet their Spanish aunties with the traditional two kisses on the cheeks. I switched to English and told them they could have a bag of sweets each if they gave the kisses. My aunties were oblivious to the bribe and even commented on what well behaved children I had, who did everything I asked.

    But do be warned I have listened in on conversations by people that assumed I couldn’t understand before, and quite frankly it is shocking what people will reveal in public when they think no one speaks their language!

  • If having ‘discreet’ discussions isn’t a benefit enough, then scientists have found that the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are halted by up to five years on average in people who speak fluently in more than one language.
  • A less useful advantage but sometimes entertaining one, is that if all players agree, you can play scrabble at home in multiple languages at the same time.
  • Growing up in a bilingual home also means it’s multi-cultural and if you’re lucky there are a wider range of traditions to celebrate and food on offer. My mum often serves a combination of Spanish and English dishes at one meal time. She served fusion food before it was even fashionable.

Languages are the key to unlocking the world

I am living proof that learning other languages is the key to unlocking the world. When my parents met in their twenties in London neither could speak the others’ language, but they wanted to get to know each other better so went to language lessons to be able to communicate. It was worth the effort as forty-five years plus two children and four grandchildren later they are still very happily married.

Luckily, they were much more successful and resilient as adult language learners than myself and my husband, who tried in vain to learn Mandarin whilst living in China. I’ve always thought I was a natural at learning languages. Those torturous Tuesday evening sessions learning the different tones needed to master Mandarin taught me otherwise.

Having said all that, I feel massively privileged to be immersed in both Spanish and English and the cultures of two countries that I have been from a young age. It has made the world a much more exciting, inviting and accessible place.

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