Cultura, Familia

Pocho studies


Thanks to Daily Chicana’s recent post on how two Chicanas in the same family can be very different, I’ve become really interested in why my younger siblings, Lori and Adrian, are a lot less fluent in Spanish than Danny and me. I’ve seen this in other families and wonder if my family is the norm, exception, or somewhere in between.

A little about my family:

My parents both immigrated as children and completed all of their school in the US. They’re fluent in both English and Spanish as are most of their siblings. I grew up speaking Spanish almost exclusively with both sets of grandparents although they understand and speak a little. All of my first cousins are fluent in English.

In our home, my family spoke English and Spanish but it was hardly equal. I’d say it was 80/20 with a lot of code-switching and Spanglish. Now that Papá Chepe and Mamá Toni live with my parents full time, it’s less lopsided. However, our home is still English dominant.

With the exception of my grandparents, we didn’t watch much Spanish TV in our home. My mom wasn’t a novelera, but as we got older she did get in to a few series. My first novela experience was Rosa Salvaje. I started watching when I stayed at Papá Chepe and Mamá Toni’s house in Zacatecas for a few weeks one summer.

While we didn’t watch much Univision or Telemundo, we attended church services primarily in Spanish. Danny and I sang with the kids’ Spanish choir and were involved in other cultural activities like ballet folkórico. We spoke Spanish at choir practice, but mainly spoke English at dance practice and with our friends there.

Glory days

As for the four kids, we’re all pochos (in the language sense) but to a different degree. I’m bilingual and biliterate, but know I’m not as strong as my friends who grew up speaking Spanish almost exclusively at home. I also get super self conscious when I spend time with my cousins in Mexico. I fear they’ll laugh when I trip over words. They don’t, they’re all very kind and some have actually complimented me on my Spanish. I studied Spanish grammar and literature in high school and minored in Spanish in college. As an adult, I’ve spent a lot more time visiting family in Mexico. My siblings haven’t been to Guanajuato or Zacatecas since they were kids. I also listen to a lot of music from Mexico and South America.

Danny was more fluent and confident in Spanish until we got to high school and I started taking Spanish classes. The least fluent are the younger two. Lori and Adrian speak and understand Spanish, but it’s what many would call “pocho” (literally incomplete, partially formed; colloquially it refers to US-born Mexican kids with less than perfect Spanish skills).


I’m not 100% sure why, but I bet Danny and I are part of the reason. With Danny and I speaking English most of the time, Lori and Adrian heard a lot less Spanish at home. When Danny and I were younger, we heard our parents speak both languages and spent more time at my grandparents’ home.

I’ve seen this with my cousins too. The elder children are fluent/almost fluent while the younger ones barely speak — or don’t want to speak — Spanish.

Adrian and Lori

I was curious about this last week and asked friends on Twitter and FB. Some people related to my experience while others said all their siblings were equally fluent. Some had confounding factors. Like me, they studied their heritage language or spent time studying abroad during college. Some had families where elder children were born in the native country while the younger ones were born here. It was interesting to read the variety of experiences as well as the thoughts of parents with young children who are trying to raise their children bilingual (or trilingual in one case). It made me think more about raising a bilingual child when my partner is not a Spanish speaker.

It’s fascinating to me how the children in one family — only 7 years apart from eldest to youngest — could be so different in language acquisition.


7 thoughts on “Pocho studies

  1. Machiko says:

    This post is so relevant to me! Did you speak English with your friends and classmates all the time? What about relatives? My siblings are similar to yours – I’m stronger w/ my Japanese than my youngest brother – though I wouldn’t say either of us are fully bilingual.

    I remember going to school as an American-born with Japanese-born parents, I felt like I had to choose: be friends with all the other Japanese kids, speak Japanese at recess – or be friends with everyone else, and speak English at school. I went to Japanese school on Saturdays, from 8 to 3. From 3rd or 4th grade on, I spoke English at recess all the time (even though that wasn’t allowed.) Choosing between those friend/language-groups was a big deal – in what TV shows we watched, what comic books we read, etc.

    I know for some parents like mine, it was a serious concern of whether their kids become “semi-lingual” – not dominant in either language. Being able to speak/joke/curse informally in both languages, but not be able to read/write/speak formally in a professional setting.

    I didn’t have very many Japanese-speaking JA friends growing up, so I’m very thankful for 24/7 Japanese television, music, comic books for keeping me “connected” with the language. But I wonder/worry if I’ll end up less “bilingual” when I’m older.

  2. It’s challenging trying to remind yourself to speak Spanish. We already try to have a 50 percent Spanish speaking time with SJ and she’s just six months. In education most dual immersion programs emphasize 100 percent in the non-dominant language initially. Eventually, when a child gets to 6th grade it’s 50/50. It can be done but it’s no easy task. We’re up for it though. We’ll have a ~2 year head start on you 🙂

  3. graciela says:

    I’m the third of four, my oldest sister is 8 years older than I. My mom spoke only spanish at home when my older sisters were little, but when they got to school, they really struggled to keep up in english. So, by the time me and my younger brother were learning to talk, my mom had an all-english rule at home. We still learned and spoke spanish with grandparents, neighbors, etc, but not at home and not as well as my older sisters until much later, maybe middle or high school. Now we’re all completely bilingual, but it took lots of work and lots of time in mexico for my brother and I to catch up. Now my fiancé and I are expecting our first and our going to work really hard to make sure s/he’s bilingual. It’s funny, my fiancé grew up with the opposite, speaking spanish perfectly but he still struggles with english. I think a lot depends on resources available to parents. For example, my mom work 60+ hours a week and had 4 kids. She didn’t realistically have enough time to work on two languages with us to make sure we mastered both. Same with my fiancé, his mom didn’t speak english well and worked all the time, so she really didn’t have to means to help him in english.

  4. Diana says:

    Appreciate your post!
    In my family with 3 siblings, we all speak Spanish to varying degrees.
    My parents are Mexican born, immigrated as young adults, my dad speaks good English but my mom was very self conscios and had a no English at home rule. One of the major factors I believe is all 4 of us have a varying degree of acculturation, and association with speaking Spanish. My brother speak less Spanish than my sister and I, but they both married non -spanish speaking spouses.
    In my job I speak spanish I would say 60% of the time, as bilingual clinician at times stumble on my words or find myself in a prediciment where I cant truly translate a word, then I rely on my Spanglish. Most of the time people are pretty forgiving, and appreciative.
    Ive instituted the Spanish only @ home rule of which I abide to 60% of time maybe. It has made a difference, I SAP all the kids TV, read to them in Spanish, etc. My daughter is 7 and can read in Spanish, and that makes me so happy, but my litte guy 3, its really hard, because he speakes english mostly, and his sister and him speak english to each other,
    Neways those are my little ramblings

  5. I love this post. It hits very close to home and my upbringing. My parents are native Californians. 3/4 of my grandparents were also born in the US. English was the primary language spoken in my home. My parents spoke Spanish to each other when they didn’t want the kids to know something. I tried adamantly to learn Spanish. I took it in High School for 3 years. I also took it for 2 semesters in college. It helped when I lived overseas during my military days. But, if you don’t use it you lose it. My husband is also of Mexican descent, but he was raised by his Jewish stepfather. He doesn’t speak Spanish either. It’s a double edged sword. People will judge others by their skin color. It’s a sad fact of life. It’s especially hard to receive flak from Hispanic folks that don’t believe that you are “Mexican” enough.

  6. I responded to your Twitter post, so you already know about me, and the gradient covers a 20-year span and one immigration. My understanding of my second language is a lot greater than my ability to speak, and I can’t read. I don’t really blame anyone for that… the priorities just didn’t seem to be there. It does make me a little sad, so I try to watch/listen to things to help me when I can.

    As I think about my own potential family, my poor kid could potentially be trilingual. My partner speaks Russian pretty fluently but doesn’t write or read it above an elementary level. I don’t feel qualified enough to teach my second language, though. =/

  7. Cool post!
    Definitely relate….although less on the language and more on the culture. I’m the youngest of three and my dad was from Greece. My two other brothers went to Greek School, went to Greece with my dad as kids, etc. My oldest brother is still definitely the most culturally Greek even though his Greek language skills are not great. And I am sure I’m the most detached from all of it.

    I think it’s a combination of younger kids wanting to be like their older siblings (who most likely just want to be only English speaking Americans) and parents getting tired of trying to teach their culture to kids who probably aren’t that interested in learning when they are 5 years old, etc..

    My bf has the same issue (only he’s the oldest and is Mexican / Puerto Rican). None of his siblings speak and he gets jokes sometimes from his friends who do speak Spanish about how he’s not Mexican enough, etc. because of that.

    Anyways, long winded comment but I think the whole age gap on culture is common.

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