“Are you speaking Spanish?”; How to ask questions about differences

habla_espanol_do_you_speak_spanish_plate-by Sachi Feris

One morning, my two-year-old and I took a walk to the playground. She was walking up the steps to the slide where two bigger boys were playing on the landing.

I was standing by the slide and said something to her in Spanish (as our family speaks Spanish at home).

“What language are you speaking?” one of the boys said to me in a voice that I heard as potentially making my daughter and other bilingual children embarrassed to speak in Spanish. “We don’t understand what you are saying.”

My husband and I met in Argentina and Spanish has always been the dominant language in our relationship so it was a natural decision, when our daughter was born, to speak to her exclusively in Spanish. My husband grew up in Canada from ages two to eight, during Argentina’s military dictatorship. His parents’ stories about his rejection of Spanish, including asking his parents to call him the English-accented version of his name that his friends at school used, scared me. As a result, one of my biggest parenting fears has been that my daughter will lose her Spanish.

My husband and I have some control over this. Even if my daughter begins to answer us in English, we can make it a point to respond in Spanish. We will continue to travel to Argentina every year to visit her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins (who will speak to her in Spanish). Fortunately, research now widely shows the benefit of bilingualism and across the United States, the assimilationist pressure to speak “English only” has lessened over the past thirty years.

What we can’t control are interactions on the playground. Sometimes “what language are you speaking?” comes from genuine, wide-eyed curiosity. Sometimes it comes from wanting to make a connection (“I’m learning Spanish at school.”)

But sometimes it comes with narrowed eyes and a whining tone, and communicates, “Why are you doing something that is different? Why can’t you just speak English?”

So I speak to this type of non-verbal communication. I name the negative tone I hear, in place of being silent around it, and risking my daughter’s internalization of the negativity:

“I don’t like when I hear other children ask questions about what language we are speaking in a negative way. It’s an incredible thing to speak two languages,” I tell my daughter. “And we know a lot of people who speak two languages.” I name her paternal grandparents and friends that speak Spanish along with languages like Japanese, Hebrew, and Italian.

My daughter’s ability to maintain a strong sense of self as a Latina and a Spanish-speaker begins with my transparent support of the language we speak and being pro-active when that language is questioned.

When I respond in this way, I’m also modeling for her how to be an anti-racist White person as she maneuvers a world where she will also notice and ask questions about differences. I want her to ask these questions in socially appropriate ways (considering her impact on others—see related post about asking questions about differences) full of wide-eyed curiosity.


Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in BrooklynSachi identifies as White and is a mother to a three-year-old daughter and soon-to-be newborn son.