From Suburbs to South America

How Empathy and Curiosity Opened the Door to my Child’s Bilingualism

In my last essay, From Suburbs to Circus, I examined my eldest daughter’s unusual career choice and what it meant to parent a child who showed an unexpected talent and a longing to perform. This lead me to reflect upon my youngest daughter, Marilyn, and what made her surprising and unique, not only within our family but as an individual as well.

Marylin’s quiet curiosity was evident from the very beginning. Even in her first few years, Marilyn seemed to be taking mental notes. From the time she taught the new girl in Kindergarten how to climb the tree to when she asked about the protestor standing outside the governor’s mansion, Marilyn demonstrated a sensitivity and concern for people. What can be said about parenting someone who cares deeply about others? What talents and interests does that empathy foster?

I saw it manifest in many different ways. Marilyn’s love for justice, equity, different cultures lead directly to her passion and talent for languages. She is the only person in our family who is bilingual.

I see her bilingualism as a product her personality traits and her cultural curiosity. Her talent for language grows out of her deep empathy for others. This is a different entry point for bilingualism than how most others come to it. Some children grow up with multiple languages spoken at home. Some kids start in a language immersion school. Our home was mono-lingual (though our family admired bilingualism and encouraged it). And my daughter did not, at the onset of her formal education, start off at a language immersion school. Yet, through her own determination and passion she became fluent in Spanish.

Marilyn grew up in Austin, TX, where many Spanish speakers live and it was common to hear Spanish being spoken in and around town. At the playground, the moms would congregate and exchange stories while our children ran and yelled. Several of those children were bilingual in German and Spanish. Not only did these playtimes function to expose Marilyn to different family cultures but also gave her some initial experiences with community and conflict! During one of these playground outings, Marilyn’s friend’s mother told me how she had observed Marilyn interacting with another mom who was holding a baby in her arms. The baby was fussing and reaching for something she saw in another, older child’s hand. The baby had no claim to the object, but had fixed her attention on it. Marilyn watched for a bit and then announced her verdict. “Give it to her, she’s just a baby!” she proclaimed to the other child. Not that her words were heeded, but Marilyn felt the importance of the situation.

Needless to say, Marilyn’s wisdom can be complicated. Parenting such a child meant staying out of her way as she processed her emotions, all while quietly supporting her when she wanted to rectify wrongs or immerse herself in a world to which she would otherwise be an “outsider.” This was a constant challenge.

While we were visiting family friends in Paris, France, Marilyn was offered one of her first overt experiences of being an outsider. She was five years old at the time and much like at home, we would frequent the city’s playgrounds. One day, while at the local playground, Marilyn was surrounded by little French children, yet she was utterly alone. I could see her watching the other children, and wanting to join in their games, but she could not speak their language and they could not speak hers. Here was her first experience with the proverbial “language barrier.” We discussed this, how we find ourselves, at times in a situation or in surroundings to which we are unaccustomed, and in these cases, we are dependent on those who are local to the area. The locals can either include us or not. In this case, Marilyn remained isolated. Yet, despite her loneliness, Marilyn did not look upon the local French children with frustration, or hostility, she remained empathic to them. I can’t help but think this experience cemented something within her regarding languages and human connection. Language is key.

Once back at home in Austin, TX, Marilyn attended Kindergarten. During this time, her best-friend had a Spanish-speaking nanny, and Marylin admired the family’s ability to converse in two languages. As a family we tried to expose Marilyn to the various local cultures. In school, a Brazilian child entered in Marilyn’s class and introduced her to Portuguese. But it was the Mexican culture that was most prevalent in our area. Marilyn’s school observed Mexican traditions like Posada and Dia de los Muertos, as well as European traditions like Santa Lucia and St. Martin’s Day, so the children were given a multi-cultural experience. Outside of school, as a family, we regularly visited nearby San Antonio, where we experienced even more of the Mexican culture. In San Antonio, you could easily witness a Quinciñera celebration, or hear Mariachi bands or experience the Mexican markets. All of this interested Marilyn.

In first grade, Spanish and German lessons were introduced in Marilyn’s classroom. Over the years, as she learned the two languages at school, she became keenly aware of the gap between the Spanish taught in school and the rapid, musical, rhythmic Spanish spoken by the native speakers in Austin and San Antonio. Despite her education and exposure, she still had trouble understanding the native speakers speak Spanish at their normal conversational pace, but, her curiosity enabled her to persist and she continued to study.

This love and study of Spanish continued through middle school where Marilyn and her peers began to analyze, bully, and create both art and trouble! The tweens were beginning to claim their power, and those years solidified, for Marilyn, the lesson that life isn’t fair. This fact is incredibly frustrating to most people, but even more so to someone like Marilyn, who still to this day, places a high value on justice and equality. Her middle school years ignited her need to speak up and to engage in little moments of activism. As the opportunities presented themselves, she objected to sexist jokes and derogatory statements which gave her a reputation of being a feminist. But really, Marilyn was more of a humanist than a feminist. She stood up for students who didn’t fit in. She saw that many of the unpopular students were the unconventional and talented people. My husband, Steve, and I supported her furious efforts to follow her heart by continuing to fight for the issues she deemed important and to follow her passion for the study Spanish language studies. To bolster this, we, as a family, traveled to Barcelona one summer. It was a glorious trip of culture, language and music. But it was only after middle school where Marilyn was able to hone in on achieving fluency in Spanish.

Once in high school, Marilyn was finally able to focus on the study of one language and not surprisingly she chose to continue to study Spanish. But, even with all the exposure she had experienced up until that point, both academic and cultural, Marilyn’s frustration continued due to her lack of fluency caused by only learning Spanish in an academic setting. To finally achieve fluency, she needed an immersive experience. The opportunity for full immersion presented itself when one family at Marilyn’s school boldly moved to Oaxaca, Mexico to learn Spanish and run a business remotely. This finally gave Marilyn the opportunity to fully immerse herself in Spanish by living in Mexico with her friend’s family for one summer.

In Oaxaca, she attended school (taught all in Spanish), sampled the cuisine, went to parties, witnessed parades and traveled on the local buses. She was hooked. As her Spanish improved, she began attending summer Spanish immersion programs that included literature, history and sociology classes. And of course, while in Oaxaca, Marilyn also found the time to do some social good. She raised money for an organization that cared for at-risk children.

The fusion of Marilyn’s activism and language fluency continued through her time at university. Once there, Marilyn took advanced Spanish language classes and opted for a semester abroad in Santiago, Chile. While in Chile, Marilyn met activists that had narrowly survived Pinochet’s military junta. After 25 years of dictatorship, Chileans were putting their country back together. These activists impressed Marilyn with their commitment and vision for a better future for themselves and their country.

Reflecting back on this time period, I am glad that Steve and I chose to stand by her and support her decisions. We funded her forays into Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Costa Rica for immersion language and cultural programs and we supported her at a unique time in her development. She currently teaches English to first graders in Honduras, which is an extremely demanding job. She spends a lot of time carefully preparing lessons to engage and enlighten the children. Marilyn has always confronted the complex problems of this world by working hard on what is in front of her.

With her connection and love of Latin America, the recent harassment and threats being made to immigrants living within the USA has hit Marilyn hard. Witnessing the suffering of families fleeing violence and coming to this country in search of a better life has prompted her to consider studying law so she can better help marginalized families in need. Regardless of whether she decides to move forward with law school or whether she heads into social work, I trust and admire the adult she has grown into. I look forward to seeing what the future brings for her and what she, in turn, brings to the future!


Margaret started studying piano at 13 and ballet at 16. She continued this delayed training trend while trying her hand at golf, soccer, gymnastics, theater, guitar, flying trapeze, trombone and aerial arts all while working as a programmer and raising a family with a very good guy, Steve.

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