Es bueno ser bilingüe

21 Feb

It’s amazing how compartmentalized children can be. Every year when the word “xenophobia” appears on the 7th grade vocabulary list, inevitably one or two of our students will admit to disliking immigrants. Usually it’s the girl who is sitting next to her friend from Africa, or the student parked next to the child whose parent came from Jamaica.

They don’t consider a girl in their class to be a foreigner.

Then one day one of our Mexican students started talking about how she came to learn English as a six-year-old and how up until that point she only spoke Spanish – even though she lived here, in an English-speaking country.

I waited to see how the girls would respond to this linguistic confession. Throughout the year, one or two of them had made comments about “the Spanish” in our city, again not fully comprehending that their remarks could be offensive to one of their favorite classmates.

This time, all eyes turned to me. What was I to make of this news, that this student who did so well in our classes hadn’t learned English until she was six?

“You know, studies show that bilingual students are smarter and can do better in school because they have two languages from which they can draw their knowledge,” I said. I left out the part about bilingual speakers having better memory, a greater ability to multi-task, and staving off Alzheimer’s longer than the rest of us mostly monolingual folks.

It didn’t matter: “I want to learn Chinese!” one of the girls said. “No, French,” another one piped up. “What about Russian?” “My mother says if I learn Spanish, it will help me get a job.”

I wish everyone was as curious as the girls in our school.

Recently a few Maryland counties have passed laws declaring their jurisdictions to be “English only.” The new laws are of course a protest against the number of people who enter this country illegally. Our nation is indeed in need of immigration reform – most people recognize that at this point. But why attack language?

Yeah, yeah, I know. It is of course the most obvious place to attack. In Home Depot, every aisle sign is now listed in English and Spanish. The conversation in nearly every shop in Upper Fells Point is in Spanish. And driving down Patapsco near Lansdowne, the happy songs blaring from the open car windows are being sung in … guess what … Spanish.

But excuse me, aren’t we adults doing a little compartmentalizing of our own here? We want students in our state to continue to achieve, to score high on standardized tests, and for our schools to continue to rank as the best in our nation.

Tell me, how will that happen in a world that has declared itself English only?

This past weekend, I went to the Spanish Mass at St. Clement’s in Lansdowne to tell parishioners about our wonderful school for girls from all faiths and all races. I practiced my Spanish all week, listening to CDs on the commute to work and reviewing with my former teacher.

I was so nervous. I was sure I was going to say something wrong. There were easily 100 people there and I had to speak in front of every single one of them.

Afterwards, girls and their parents shyly came up to me to get more information. This was the hardest part, when I had to decipher what they were saying and to compose my response. There were a few moments — too long a pause on my part as I struggled to articulate – and one the mothers smiled at me knowingly, but not unkindly, and then switched to English.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Studies show that most immigrants learn English within 10 years of arriving in this country. Their learning curve is – again, no shocker — affected by the number of resources available to them.

Truthfully, I’ve never met a Spanish speaker who hasn’t wanted to learn English. I’m just saddened there are so many Americans uninterested in expanding their own minds.

For them, I’m happy to translate what “English only” sounds like to the rest of the world – “Americanos estúpidos.”

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2 Responses to “Es bueno ser bilingüe”

  1. thewordpimp February 25, 2013 at 1:27 PM #

    Well said! I used to do a lot of work with EBLO (Education Based Latino Outreach), and we always found that it was harder to convince new arrivals to allow their children to keep speaking Spanish. They were all to eager to leave their language and culture behind. Xenophobia is a powerful fear.

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