How does it feel to speak a language?
We are really blessed to have a guest post from the inspirational bilingual author Delia Berlin. Prepare to be encouraged and provoked to think.A tall order, but she does it! Emotional Aspects of Language Learning
I grew up in Argentina and my first language was Spanish. Then and there, any knowledge of a foreign language was universally valued. My school years in Argentina exposed me to German, English and French. Today, I’m only fluent in Spanish and English, but I still have rudimentary knowledge of a variety of languages.
Having spent my adult life in the US, when I had a daughter I had to decide what language to use with her. Since I always thought that speaking more than one language was beneficial, I wanted her to learn both English and Spanish. She was bound to learn English from her teachers and peers, so I chose Spanish. She grew up bilingual, and decades later she is now raising a bilingual child of her own.
So why is it that so many Americans with parents or grandparents who spoke another language never learned a word of it? A friend of mine pointed out that in her family, the first generation of immigrants was focused on fitting in. Learning English and leaving the old language behind was required for upward mobility and success. There was no practical value in teaching children a language for which they no longer saw use. For these immigrants who had left their countries forever, survival depended on growing new roots as Americans.
In the years between the world wars, immigrants arrived in waves. There was a hierarchy for these groups, with the latest one to arrive usually being the poorest and least socially connected, and therefore shunned. With language as the main identifier of one’s group, the quicker one learned English, the sooner this discrimination would diminish. Native languages were a liability. It was only natural for parents to want their children to sound “American” and to be spared these difficulties. As for children themselves, then just like now, their focus was to fit in with their peers.
The first time I noticed a child in the US who spoke Spanish but pretended he didn’t, I was baffled. But then, I understood. Here, if you are middle class and educated, travel and have global interactions, proficiency in Spanish is helpful. But if you are a Latino child in a poor community, speaking Spanish may have given you nothing but grief. And so ironically, emotional aspects come into play and those who are most disadvantaged become less likely to exploit the rich, low-hanging fruit of an additional language, that eventually may give them an edge.
Although largely spared, I was not blind to the prevalent prejudice and discrimination against Latinos while raising my daughter. I understood that if she was going to speak and maintain Spanish, she had to “buy in” to its benefit. In those days, I didn’t have many bilingual support sources at hand, but a home-made combination of talks, travel, books and even a little Sesame Street, seemed enough to convince my child about the value of her Spanish.
These days, with easier travel, increased communication technology, more diverse populations and a global economy, the practical value of knowing multiple languages has skyrocketed for some. But for many they still remain a stigma.
During the last four decades in the US, inequality has increased resulting in more marked segregation in neighborhoods and schools. In my own town, for example, more than three quarters of the students are Latino, while more affluent adjacent towns have mostly white, non-Latino enrollment.
Our teachers and school administrators do their best to support bilingualism, but with segregation entrenched, prejudice and discrimination are hard to eradicate. Speaking Spanish is not perceived by many of these children as helpful, and this presents an emotional barrier to developing and maintaining bilingualism. How could we change this negative perception in every child who has the opportunity to learn Spanish from a young age?
In my community, my contribution comes in the form of writing bilingual books for children and reading them at local schools. Bilingual books help children make linguistic connections between their languages. In their homes, these books allow every family member (a grandma who may not speak English, or a young uncle who doesn’t know Spanish) to share the same story. Children can discuss the story with everyone in the family, and even adults may benefit by improving their own language skills. By reading these books in local schools, I also demonstrate that bilingual skills are valuable. Many of these children have never met an author, let alone a bilingual one. For some of them, this single experience may tip the scale of motivation.
When I’m out with my young granddaughter, we speak Spanish. While rarely anyone says anything, gestures and actions speak louder than words. The wide range of responses from people around us spans from sheer delight to harsh judgment. At times, even I become self-conscious enough to switch languages, as if needing to prove that we can speak English, that we are home.
We all can find our own ways to recognize the value of languages to motivate children’s learning. Our help could come in the form of praise for a child’s language proficiency, or a request for help with a translation. And it could be as subtle as becoming aware of our own reactions to people speaking foreign languages. Worldwide there are different social dynamics at play for each foreign language. Some languages may even trigger public distrust, avoidance, or fear. Children may not be able to articulate these reactions, but they certainly notice and internalize them.
Delia Berlin was born in Argentina but has spent most of her life in Connecticut. With graduate degrees in both Physics and Family Studies, she worked in early intervention, education, and administration, and taught child development at the college level. She writes bilingual children’s books, as well as essay collections with her husband, artist David Corsini. For more information about Delia Berlin and her books, visit her website at deliaberlin.com.
If you’d like to buy some of Delia’s lovely books click on the links below.