Posts Tagged ‘bilingual’

11th August
written by Michelle

If your new here, these are series of letters I started writing to my daughter before she was born. This was the first one, and this is one her Daddy wrote her. I wrote about her birth story here  and I seem to write a lot about raising a bilingual and bicultural daughter and hardest part of motherhoods . These are my way to capture and remember parts of her life and I invite you to read along. This may be last “Dear Mija” letter for awhile, but I am sure I’ll come back to it.


Dear Mija-

In June we celebrated your first birthday. (And our first year has parents! Let’s be honest, both are equally important.)

Elena, you say “Dada” first thing every morning, you are starting to give real besitos and you would eat black beans by the spoonful if we let you. I am convinced the Guatemalan side of you will always prefer to sleep right between me and Daddy and it’s a good thing we live in a country where no one bats an eye if you breastfeed your walkin’, talkin’, toddler because that very well may be us. Your favorite things are doggies, agua and signing “more.” Maybe in that order.

Anytime you see a doggie you make the cutest little “ruff ruff” sound. Oddly in Guatemala, the toilet paper brand Scott has a cute golden retriever as its logo. So you often walk down the supermarket aisle pointing and barking.

Before you said “mama” or “dada” you said “agua.” And it’s still your favorite thing. Washing your hands, taking a shower, playing in the pool…as long as there is water involved you’re a happy camper. We’ve started teaching you signs for “more” and “all-done” around 7 or 8 months and I was convinced that you could care less. And then one day around 11 months or so you ago you just got it! It’s like it clicked and you started signing “more” ALL. THE. TIME. More aguaMore beans. More nena. More books. More, more, more.

When I tell you it’s time to go “night night” you grab your monkey or your nena and start to pat their back and say “shhhh.” It’s pretty much the cutest thing ever. You now sleep in a small corner of your room on the floor, surrounded by pillows and blankets. We call it your nest, and ironically you sleep better now then you ever did in your crib.

You wave to people we see on the street and you love playing with and poking other kids. We’re working on more of the former and less of the latter. You have always liked noise and activity and being out and about. When we go to a birthday party or out with friends you’re as content as can be. But the moment I get you in the car you start to fuss and cry and basically melt down. When you meet someone new you usually give them a stare down at first. When someone talks to you, you listen with your eyes. Serious, focused and intent. When you trust someone you usually grab their hand and a cautious smile comes across your face.

Without intentionally planning it we got to celebrate your first birthday in both countries. First in California with your US family and then a few weeks later with your Guatemalan family. At Nana and Papa’s house your Auntie Christine and Stephanie decorated with an etsy banner that matched the circus theme.


Nana bought Animal Crackers and delicious cupcakes and everything was red, white and yellow. We ate grilled cheese sandwiches on sourdough bread with onions and veggies and drank fancy drinks through pretty straws.

You sat on the floor in your red birthday dress and loved trying frosting for the first time. You opened gifts and tore paper and played with the envelopes while I read your birthday cards.


You are so loved by your family in the states. Your Uncle Andrew was there and Grandma Charlotte came by. I so badly want you to have memories in that home where I grew up. I look forward to the day when you say, “I want go to Nana and Papa’s house.”

In Guatemala a few weeks later, I picked up some balloons and a “Feliz Cumpleanos” banner at the Bodegona. I had you dressed in jeans and little blouse, but when we got to Mama Hiya’s house she surprised us with a huipil and corte that she made just for you. Your Aunt Mimi got you dressed and everyone said how beautiful you looked.


You didn’t look so sure about your new wardrobe, but you were a good sport. Your abuela made pepian for the whole family and we drank rosa de jaimca.


We had a huge Winnie the Pooh piñata, which I think your cousins were more excited about than you were. We sang to you and ate cake and drank Pepsi.

I made your “cake” with banana bread and cocoa date frosting and gave you water. Sorry, Mija…if I can hold off giving you soda for a little bit longer I will.


And you are so loved by your family in Guatemala.

I love watching you grab your cousins’ hands and walk around the home where your Daddy grew up. I look forward to you learning things about your Guatemalan heritage, things that I can’t teach you.

Elena, as you get older we’ll probably have our own birthday celebrations here at home. And I have a feeling we’ll take some traditions from both families. I imagine you may always want a piñata and ya know, the Bodegona has some half-decent decorations on the 2nd level. Your Daddy and I may get you a gift or two and let you choose a new birthday outfit. I will probably make some half-healthy snacks and I think pretty straws are sometimes fun. I imagine as you grow up we will keep finding ways to honor and celebrate you, and where you come from and who you are.

Elena, each year on your birthday I want you to remember three words:

strong, kind and grateful.

These are three words I hope to teach you and model for you. Three words that I pray over you and the one day you’ll look back and say, my mama taught me how to be strong, kind and grateful.

I want you to be strong in who you are. I want you to have an inner strength to know where you come from and how deeply loved you are. I pray that your strength comes not from what you do or what you achieve but from a deep trust in God. My hope is that your strength allows you take risks, and be the kind of girl who who stands up for what you know is right and is willing to sometimes do the hard thing.

I also want you to be kind. This is something that I have had to learn how to be. Sometimes I think being a first-born means we learn to be bossy and brave, but kindness gets buried underneath being in charge. Elena, my sweet girl I want you to be kind to people, kind to the boy or girl at school who other kids make fun and kind to the old lady you see in the park. Kindness is kind of like of a muscle, the more you use if the stronger it becomes.

Lastly, and maybe more most importantly, I want you to be grateful. I want you to be grateful when we sit on plastic stools and are served caldo de galina, even if it’s not your favorite. I want you to be grateful for the home we have and the privileges that will have. I think you can either choose to live life complaining about little things, or being grateful for the big things. I hope we can always choose the latter.

Elena, I know if I want you to be a strong, kind and grateful girl, then I need to model that. So on your birthday, this is also a reminder to myself, too. Because the truth is I want to be a strong, kind and grateful mother.

Whenever Daddy asks you, “Cuantos anos, Elena?” you hold up your little pointer finger ever so proudly. Uno!

Yes, my dear you’re one. And sometimes I want to bottle up your little finger, and chubby legs and sweet smile and say, stay my one-year-old baby forever. But then I remember what a gift it is to watch you grow and change and learn. And how being your mom is one of my favorite things ever. So here’s to a lifetime of celebrating your birthday…and making me a mom.

I love you, Elena.

 All my love,



P.S. Here’s a little quick 15-second look at the past 12 months, month-by-month!

11th March
written by Michelle

As a foreigner, living in a Spanish speaking country, I get asked this question a lot. Are you fluent?

I never know quite how to answer. I shrug my shoulders, umm kinda? I mean I don’t feel fluent. I still struggle with the woulda/shoulda/coulda tenses and I have huge gaps in my vocabulary. When I go the hardware store I end up gesturing with my hands when I realize I don’t know how to say “drawer handle” or when I go to the grocery store to buy a funnel and spend ten minutes trying to show the guy by making my hand into a fist and pouring water “through it.” Pathetic. And at a medial/dental clinic I was helping at last month I realize I don’t know the words for blink, heel or gargle. So, see I am still learning.

Often times volunteers or mission groups or new expats living here ask me, How did you learn your Spanish?

And this is what I tell them or what I would tell anyone who wants to learn a 2nd language:

 1) Use what you ALREADY know. It’s true what hey say, what you don’t use, you lose. So if all you know how to say is “Hola, me llamo Michelle.” Then say that 100 times a day. The people who I’ve seen learn a language fastest are not the perfectionists who sit in a coffee shop writing gzillions flashcards (ahem, me) it’s the people who go out and talk with people and stumble through awkward conversations and lots of big hand gesturing.

 2) Expect to be frustrated. When you start learning a 2nd language you may feel like a 7-year-old every time you begin a conversation. Your vocabulary drops and your sentences become 1-3 words max. You may be a teacher or lawyer or the head of your speech and debate club back at home, but when you’re operating in your 2nd language you will be at a 2nd grade level for awhile. And that’s ok.

 3) Don’t compare, don’t compare, don’t compare. I used to feel most insecure with my Spanish when another foreigner was there who spoke better Spanish than I did. I would fumble over my words and imagine them correcting me in their head. I still feel this way if I have to translate and know that there is someone in the group who speaks better English/Spanish than me! I’ve learned you have to block out those voices and insecurity. It’s been proven when you’re stressed and worried there is actually a part of our brain called the affective filter that goes up and prohibits any coherent sentences from coming out. Like my very first Spanish teacher told me. Go out with a group of Spanish speaking friends, have a glass of wine and stop thinking, just talk.

 4) Find someone who can help you understand the language and interpret the culture. I have had four or five different Spanish teachers over the years and they may have helped me learn new verbs and words, but they also explained the context and culture behind those words and when to use them. This may have been even more valuable than the actual grammatical lessons. Especially if you’re going oversees find a person (not a computer program) who can be a cultural interpreter for you.

 5) Practice speaking with anyone you can. This is especially true if you’re living in the US where the language you’re learning isn’t the dominant one.  Be intentional to find people who speak the language you want to learn. When I was in Santa Barbara I often stayed late in my classroom just so I could talk to the janitors who came by every afternoon to clean. At our local farmers market I would visit the same stands and bring extra money to buy something just so I could talk to the growers in Spanish. Word of caution, don’t just assume speaks Spanish or any other language based on their physical characteristics. I always found it respectful to ask the person, “Do you speak Spanish (or whatever language you want to learn)?” and if they say yes, then proceed to tell them how you are trying to practice and ask if it’s ok to speak to them in that language.

 6) Listen to the radio. In my opinion you can read all the books and newspapers that you want, but there is something about listening to the radio that helps you hear how people actually talk. I’m not saying it’s always interesting or fun, but when I lived in Santa Barbara I made myself listen to 90.3 radio (nueva vida punto tres…said thick Mexican accent) every morning on the way to work. I didn’t really love the music, but hearing it did force me to listen to Spanish every day. I guess you could do the same with a TV program but radio always seemed easier to me because I could do it while drivin. If you’re in Guatemala and if you have a car, I’d say just try it. Make yourself listen to the radio and you might be surprised at how much you start to understand and what insights you get into the culture. The advertisements themselves are sometimes even better than the music. The local Antigua station is 102.5 and there are lots in Guatemala City. I usually tune it 104.1 or 93.5

 7) Talk with kids. Kids are great to practice with! They usually repeat words numerous times, use no more than 4 words in a sentence and can play the “point and tell me how to say this” game for hours. If you’re not around kids, get your hands one some simple kids books. I found reading kids books can be a great, easy way to start.

8) Be gracious with yourself. It takes years to learn a 2nd language. My first full-year living here I used to get so frustrated because I wanted my Spanish to be as fluent as my English. Which is just an absurd expectation, as Gerber would so often remind me. So, maybe right away let go of the expectations that your 2nd language will be a good as your first. Unless, you’re born bilingual or have some uncanny knack for languages just accept that you will probably never be quite as comfortable or fluent in your 2nd language as your first. Learning a 2nd language is hard. I’ve seen especially among other North American adults that we get frustrated so easily when we can’t communicate in the same way or at the same level that as we’re used to. It’s a humbling and hard and I think it anything can gives us a little insight into what people feel like in our own country who come and are in the process of learning English. It’s hard to learn a 2nd language and I think it’s even harder as an adult.

 9) Have fun. It’s true, right? If you’re having fun you’ll be motivated to keep doing it. If you have the chance to study abroad and live with a family. Do it. If you can spend an evening each week playing soccer with friends who only speak Spanish, then go for it. One of my mentors and pastors used to encourage any student before coming on a mission trip to spend an hour each week just sitting in a little Spanish bakery on one side of town. She told them, buy a pan dulce, pick up a Spanish newspaper and just listen, watch and make friends with the women behind the counter. In my experience the more you can put yourself in situations where you have to use what you know and make friends with someone while doing it then the faster you’ll be able to learn a 2nd language.

Que suerte!

Do you speak two language? What’s helped you learn your 2nd language? Do you have any tips? Have you always wanted to learn a 2nd language? What’s stopped you?

P.S. If you’re seriously interested in improving your Spanish, I have a few friends/teachers here in Antigua who do Spanish lessons via skype. It’s a great experience to have a native speaker as your teacher and half the price as what it would cost you in the states. If you’re interested leave a comment here or email me and I can connect you.

4th April
written by Michelle

Dear Mija

Months before we were ever pregnant I begin wondering and reading about how to raise bilingual and bicultural kids. I soaked up any stories, tips and ideas from other moms and families that I could find. Then my friend Sarah, from a A Life With Subtitles, introduced me to SpanglishBaby. Let me say it is a GREAT resource for parents, teachers, or anyone who works in a bicultural/bilingual setting. It feels like walking into a friend’s living room and finding 10 other moms who are navigating this unique territory, nodding their heads along with you, saying “yeah, me, too.”

I like how the internet can bring people together and sometimes make you feel a little more connected, despite the miles between.

I was honored yesterday that they posted one of my pieces; a letter I wrote to my future bilingual and bicultural daughter. You can read it here on SpanglishBaby’s site.

{photo credit: Dave Christenson}


16th January
written by Michelle
There is a baby

yes, there is a baby in there { 16 weeks }

Being pregnant has many perks. I now have a great excuse for even more snacking, my boobs have grown at least a cup, and people genuinely seem so excited when they find out we’re pregnant. I kinda have a feeling those same people may not be quite as excited when they have to sit near us on a long flight with the crying child, but that’s for another time.  For now, I’ll take the excitement and the slew of questions. Over the past few weeks these have been the 12 most common.

So in case you were just sitting at home, dying to ask us these questions…ta-dah, now you don’t have to. See answers below : )

1. Do you guys want to find out what you’re having?

yep. Partly just to plan and prepare for either a little girl or little boy….but the real reason is because we want to eliminate half of the name conversation. Once we get back to Guatemala we’re hoping at one of our next appointments to be able to find out.

2. Do you have a preference? boy or girl?

Nope. I will be happy with a healthy little baby doesn’t matter the gender. Gerber says he has a feeling it’s a girl, but who knows.

3. Do you have name ideas?

Oh, do we ever….but one of our requirements is that the name has to be pronounced the same in English and Spanish. So we’re trying to stay away from names with r, j, y, and th. We’ve both had to let go of names we used to like. For instance, I’ve has to accept that Ethan (for a boy) and Madelyn (for a girl) are just not gonna work in Spanish. And Gerber had to give up Joaquin (for a boy) and Maria-Jose (for a girl). Our litmus test has been to see if a Starbucks barista can pronounce the name. So you know when you go to Starbucks and the ask for your name? Well, I may have been a “Gabriella” or “Elena” and Gerber has tried out “Mateo” and “Elias.”

4. Will you have the baby in the States or Guatemala?

Guatemala. It just makes sense. We live there, we don’t have insurance in the states and we have found a great midwife and birth center in Guatemala City. I mean women have healthy babies every day in Guatemala so I figure I can too.

5. Why did you chose a midwife?

I love the philosophy behind midwifery and probably would have chosen one if we were having the baby in the states as well. I mean women have been having babies for centuries with midwives and the whole idea that God made our bodies able to do this just fascinates me. I wanted a woman to attend my birth because most likely my mom and sisters will not be able to be there. Hannah, our midwife, has been a great support so far- available for phone calls, emails and all of my random questions. She’ll do a birthing class for us and 40 days of post-postpartum care. And maybe what sold me is that the birth center has a warm water tub- which I kind of imagine will be like a jacuzzi during labor. (yeah, yeah…just let me by a little naive for now, the idea still sounds lovely). And for those of you tend to worry… no need to be alarmed, there is a hospital close by that she partners with if at any point me or the baby is in danger.

But really, to each her own. I know wonderful women give birth to healthy babies in hospitals all the time. I think the last thing moms-to-be need is judgement from other women.

6. Will you baby have dual citizenship?

yep. The US embassy in Guatemala will grant US citizenship to our baby because one of it’s parents is a US citizen. So a few months after birth we’ll take the little one in for his/her first passport picture so we can come visit the USA. (yes, you can expect a picture : )

7. When will you guys come back to the states to visit?

Well, I am trying to hold all plans loosely for next year- but our hope is to come back sometime in August or September. We’ll see.

8. How have you been feeling?

Thankfully, really well. Just hungry…I feel this ravenous need to eat every 2 hours. But, I really can’t complain. Besides being super tired the whole first semester and noticing an increase in hair-growth (on my chin!), I have felt really healthy and happy. Don’t hate me. I sometimes feel bad, because I know some friends have had such difficult and nauseating pregnancies, but maybe I can blame it on good genes?

9. Have you had any weird cravings?

Nothing, too particularly weird. Baguettes with cheese have never tasted better and for as cliche as it sounds, I may have sent Gerber on a few pickle runs. Why do pregnant women like pickles???
10. Are you going to keep working after the baby comes?

well, that’s the plan. (see answer #7 for a reminder that all plans are held loosely: ) Gerber I agreed before we got married that because we both have flexibility with our work and ministry we both want to be able to keep working and spend time at home with kids. So we obviously we will have a lot to figure out. I’m sure our schedule will change (probably even more than I realize) and especially at the beginning because I plan on breastfeeding. Thankfully, our organization is super flexible for families and parents.

11. What about your the home remodel you’ve talked about? Is that still happening?

yep. That’s what we’re hoping. It will probably mean moving out of our home for a few months while construction happens. So we may rent for a while and probably won’t be doing an nursery decorating, but that’s ok. Most families in Guatemala have babies and never decorate a nursery or buy a crib before a baby comes. I figure we’ll do all of that later. I don’t think the baby will mind.
12. What’s been the best part so far?

When Gerber cuddles me at night, kisses my head and says “I love you both.”