Bilingual is Better

The author and his daughter

Editor’s note: This is the first in a week long series of essays for Father’s Day written by papás who are raising bilingual and bicultural children. We hope you come back to read the rest of the essays this week. If you missed anything, you can always go to the introductory post for links to the essays and to our awesome giveaway!

Growing up in Miami, Spanish was everywhere. My Cuban mom spoke only Spanish to my brother and I because that was her native language and her English was creaky. When my dad bolted on us for another woman, mami moved us all in with my grandparents, who didn’t speak more than three words of English (‘Hello’ and ‘Sank you’). Spanish was in the priest’s homily at Sunday mass, in the cadence of the old men who drank llaves outside Cochinito Supermarket and argued over baseball and politics, in the house of la tía who took care of us after school four days a week.

Spanish sank into my DNA and I acquired it early and easily, even as I learned the “other” language of our resident country. I remember sitting in Mrs. Yeager’s class during my first day of kindergarten, not knowing any English at all, and not being particularly worried about it. By the end of the school year, I was speaking English fluently to my teacher and classmates, Spanish fluently to my mom and abuelos at home. It was effortless and unconscious, but my family had given me a lifelong gift.

Today, as I attempt to pass on that heritage to my 5-month-old daughter, Elle, and raise her speaking Spanish, things are more complicated. My Spanish has rusted over years of sparse usage (not to mention a decade-and-a-half of reading and writing English for a living). My wife doesn’t speak Spanish. Elle’s grandparents are three states away. And we live in New Orleans, where Spanish is rarely heard.

Spanish wasn’t going to just soak into her system. I needed to make an effort to put it there. During my wife’s pregnancy, I researched and strategized the best way to do this. I discovered remarkable things. One of the most fascinating: Baby brains start readying to acquire language at seven months – in utero. The tiny embryonic brain starts spreading out neural connectors tasked with absorbing syntax and organizing sentence structures. The connectors twitch and stretch in response to the sound of the parents’ voices. So I started reading Spanish lullabies each night to my wife’s swelling belly.

Equally compelling is the fact that language is not a learned skill – it’s an evolutionary human trait, akin to walking on two feet or opposing thumbs. This can be witnessed in the whimsical utterances of children – “You giggled me!” – that aren’t taught to them by parents or learned through imitation. The brain comes hard-wired for language. “Language is no more a cultural invention than is upright posture,” MIT professor Steven Pinkler writes in his insightful book, The Language Instinct.

The fact that language is acquired evolutionarily and starts to develop mind-bogglingly early are important revelations for parents attempting to raise a bilingual child. I continue to speak Spanish to Elle, even though I know I won’t get a reply for another 18 months or so. And I talk to her continuously, despite the fact that my Spanish is at times jagged and busted up. I came across a great anecdote in another helpful book, The Bilingual Family: A Handbook for Parents, which described a father wishing to raise his daughter speaking French, even though his French was rudimentary high-school-learned and not his native language. Not only did his French improve after four years of reading French children’s books, but her French surpassed his in the submersion pre-school she attended. By age 5, she was correcting his French. That’s one of my goals: To one day have Elle correct my Spanish.

So challenges lay ahead and the initiative is on me to stick with it. For now, the CD changer is stacked with Ruben Gonzalez and Benny Moré. Elle’s children books are mostly Spanish and I sing “Como Fue” and “Guantanamera” to her each morning. Often she giggles. Sometimes she just poops her diaper. Spanish-speaking nannies, play dates and vacations are all also in her future.

I may not have Spanish-speaking abuelos nearby or los viejos outside Cochinito. But I have a bright-eyed, gurgling baby girl, the foundation of a beautiful language and the will to see it through.

Rick Jervis is a Cuban-American born in Miami. He graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in Journalism and has worked at The Miami Herald, Wall Street Journal Europe and Chicago Tribune. He lived in Prague, Czech Republic, for 3-1/2 years, covering Eastern Europe for the Wall Street Journal Europe, and spent two years as the Baghdad Bureau Chief for USA TODAY. He currently resides in New Orleans, where he works as the Gulf Coast Correspondent for USA TODAY.  He lives with his wife, Elena, baby daughter Elle, and mixed-breed dog, Juno.

 

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