Spanish Vocabulary: Discussing Family in Spanish-Speaking Countries

Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

You know that family is very important in Spanish-speaking countries, and you want to know how to approach the topic. This lesson gives you an overview of relevant words that relate to family as a topic of discussion.

Family-Oriented Culture

How often do you get together with your family? What do you talk about when you get together? In Spanish-speaking countries, la familia (lah fah-MEE-leeah), which means 'the family', gets together often.

In fact, Spanish culture is very family-oriented. But what does this mean? Let's meet a family from Mexico to illustrate how family members in Spanish-speaking countries play different roles.

Family Structure

First, there is a difference between the traditional family structure in Spanish-speaking countries as compared with today's society. This means that some sociocultural factors influence family structure. Today, couples in urban areas in Spain, Argentina, Chile and Panama, as well as in other countries like Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador, do not necessarily fit the concept of a 'traditional' family.

To begin, here is the basic family structure:

  • el padre (ehl PAH-dreh): the father
  • la madre (lah MAH-dreh): the mother
  • el hijo (ehl EE-joh): the son
  • la hija (lah EE-hah): the daughter

Now, let's meet Familia González. This family lives in Mexico City and has exactly the number of family members we just learned in our vocabulary list. Eduardo is el padre. Angélica is la madre. Carlos Eduardo is the son and María Angélica is the daughter. Before we move on to some basic dynamics that are representative of families in Spanish-speaking countries, let's learn the plural vocabulary for the words above.

  • los padres (lohs PAH-drehs): the parents
  • los hijos (lohs EE-johs): the sons (use this word for families with two or more sons and to refer to 'the children', including males and females). For example: Los hijos de Eduardo y Angélica son Carlos Eduardo y María Angélica.
  • las hijas (lahs EE-hahs): the daughters

Family Dynamics

Let's look at some main aspects of family dynamics. In each part, we highlight some important vocabulary.

Family Names

Children carry the father's last name first, followed by the mother's last name. However, society identifies the whole family with the father's last name. From this, we know that Eduardo's last name is González. Last name in Spanish is el apellido (ehl ah-peh-YEE-doh).

In Spain, there is a recent change in the law: couples can choose to give their children the mother's last name. Also, did you notice the names of the González children? Very commonly in Spanish-speaking countries, children carry the first names of their mom or dad, although children can be named after an aunt, uncle, or grandparent.

Household Head

Familia González is a modern family. This means that while the father is the household head because he brings in most of the income, the mother is not an ama de casa (AH-mah deh KAH-sah), or 'housewife'. While we can still find lots of women who are housewives in Spanish-speaking countries, this is not always the case. Women also contribute financially to the household nowadays.

Traditional Roles

Despite modern changes, some roles are still very marked in many families across Latin America and Spain. In other words, some machismo features are there. This word refers to the predominant role of men in society, while women are limited to household chores. For instance, Angélica cooks on weekends while Eduardo washes the car. This, however, is not necessarily the case in young couples nowadays, as men have no problem cooking or staying at home to take care of the children.

Household Care

Familia González has the help of an empleada doméstica (ehm-pleh-AH-dah doh-MEHS-tee-kah), or 'maid'. Many families in Latin America might have a maid who lives in the household. This is not so common in Spain. We highlight the term empleada doméstica because it is not uncommon for maids to become part of the family, particularly in cases when they have raised the children while the parents work.

Grandparents Role

In countries like Colombia, Ecuador and Perú, parents often leave their children with grandparents while they work. In short, grandparents help raise children. This phenomenon is common in Latin America when parents immigrate to another country in search of better opportunities. Immigrant parents often leave their children, who end up becoming adults under the care of their grandparents.

Translation: A grandmother takes care of her granddaughter while parents work.

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