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Raising the Kids to be Bilingual

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

You might think that a pair of Canadians raising a child in Mexico means the achieving bilingualism is automatic – taken for granted. That was my thinking when we chose to have a baby. After 14 months, it’s proving to be more work than I thought, but not an impossible challenge.

We speak mostly English in the home with Stella, though reading time is a mix of both as we’ve collected an enormous library of children’s books written in both English and Spanish. I’ve been using select programming from Nick Jr, a channel carried on Sky (Mexican satellite tv provider). Dora la Exploradora and a few other programs that are 90% Spanish. We also have a nanny that watches Stella when both mom and dad are at work (about 40% of the year) and she speaks 100% Spanish. So, it looks like we have all the right tools in place.

Stella is not talking yet…a few words here and there, and lots of ba-ba-babble. I’m told that kids raised in a bilingual environment will normally take a bit longer to start speaking so no worries as yet. What I’m most impressed with is her ability to understand either language.

Whether it’s Spanish or English -though mostly English – Stella demonstrates a very understanding of what’s said to her. “Please bring daddy the ball” is answered quickly by her looking for the ball (among a mountain of toys) and bringing it to daddy. Using some Spanish like “donde esta la pelota?” is producing the same result.

It will be interesting to see what her first phrases are, beyond the yes/no, hi/bye, mama/papa words she’s already using. I am hoping it won’t be something like:

“Papa, here’s the pelota. Donde esta my bottle of leche?”

But even if it is, I’ll still be happy.

Raising Children in Mexico – A Canadian’s View

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010
Baby girl

Guy's daughter Stella

14 months old is my little Mexican-Canadian daughter…frijolera and canucka, all rolled into one little ball of joy and smiles.

My girlfriend and I are both Canadians, living and working as teachers in Mexico City and when we decided to start a family, we made the decision to have our baby here. That choice entailed lots of questions and research, not only on hospitals and doctors, but on legal questions of nationality and long term factors like education. We’re happy with our decision while our daughter reaps the benefits of being dual-cultured well on the way to being bilingual.

Here are some thoughts I have on the challenges and benefits of having a child in Mexico as a foreigner, in case you’ve stumbled upon this post looking for information on the subject.

Health care. Canadians often take health care for granted, given our universal coverage. Mexico is a good example of what happens to a country that has a two-tiered system and little oversight. A mixed and confusing bag of all levels of care, ranging from very low-cost state care to high-cost private care with anything and everything in between. We had some specific traits we were looking for in a hospital and doctor and after awhile, we found what we wanted.

While we had access to nearly-free care, the state system didn’t meet our needs. We wanted to ensure that mother and baby would be together at all times, instead of baby being in the nursery all day and night. We didn’t want formula to be given to the baby – breastfeeding only. As the father, I wanted to be in the delivery room and stay with mother and baby in a private room.

After looking at several hospitals, one finally fit the bill and the delivery went smoothly. It certainly cost money, but not an unreasonable sum. The doctors we’d chosen were unbelievably good – attentive and available. All in all, it was a better experience than we could have found in the Canadian system.

Nannies, diet, and playtime. We also needed to make some decisions on work, childcare, and schedules. I am lucky to be able to set my own hours at work over the course of the year, so the decision was made for me to play stay-at-home dad for much of the first year. A nanny would help out for the times I did need to work.

Choosing a nanny turned out to be easy. We live in a mixed neighbourhood with plenty of families and have gotten to know many of our neighbours over the year (we bought an apartment in central Mexico City just before Stella was born). Our nanny lives with several of her family members half a block away and has a three-year-old son of her own. She has been a dream and an inexpensive one at that. Stella is quite happy with her and we rest easy knowing she is in good hands while we work.

Nutrition and diet for Stella are other important factors of course. Both my girlfriend and I are big foodies and healthy eaters and the food in Mexico is the top reason we both choose to live here. We wanted to ensure that Stella ate as healthily as possible right from the get go so access to whole and natural foods was important. Local fruits and veggies are a year-round thing and very low-cost here. Very little processed foods are to be found in my cupboards or on Stella’s plate. We started her on solids at 6 months of age, introducing fresh avocado, peas, carrots, and a few other usual suspects and haven’t looked back. It amazes me thinking back to my own childhood how many things I refused to eat and here’s Stella, gleefully trying everything we offer – and none of it has ever come from a jar, a can, or a tetrapak.

Nationality and Education. Having been born in Mexico, Stella was automatically given Mexican citizenship. The hospital provides a record of the birth which one brings to the Registro Civil (civil registry) to obtain a birth certificate. Super simple. Getting her Canadian citizenship was a little more time consuming, mostly due to a change in laws in Canada right around the time of her birth. Nonetheless, after a couple of trips to the Canadian embassy and a number of documents, her citizenship card arrived after 10 months. Strangely, the embassy was able to issue her a Canadian passport with few questions asked, and in less than 15 days whle she was still still a few months old.

Education is probably our biggest concern – and paying for it. Like health care, education in Mexico offers a dizzying array of choices, from state-provided to all levels of private. Stella will be able to attend my girlfriend’s school at a significant discount, but it’s still expensive. Pre-school and kindergarten will be our first proving ground and both quality and cost will be concerns. Down the road, there is university to consider and while we’d like her to attend a Canadian university, Stella will have to be a resident to avoid the costs of enrolling as a foreign student. That may mean doing at least 2 years at a Canadian high school, complicating matters. I guess we’ll see.

All in all, raising Stella here in Mexico is the best thing we could have done for her. She gets the best of both worlds and leads a happy, healthy little life.

Until the terrible twos, at least.