Bilingual is Better

The author with his family {Photo credit: Mario Iván Oña}

Editor’s note: This is the fourth and final essay in a week long series for Father’s Day written by papás who are raising bilingual and bicultural children. We hope you’ve enjoyed all 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!

Long before our daughter Aylin Carolina was born last October, my wife Deniz and I decided what she wasn’t going to be when she grew up: monolingual. With three languages between us, we knew giving her a chance at being trilingual was the greatest inheritance we could offer her. Not only would this inheritance be impervious to inflation or Wall Street shenanigans, it would also be the sturdiest bridge to her roots.

We certainly realize we’re wide-eyed new parents, who are only eight months into an 18-year race. And never mind that Aylin has yet to turn indecipherable ga-ga goo-goos into coherent words… in any language. Even so, we feel good about our chances. Confident. Perhaps, it’s because we have a few key things going for us.

For starters, Deniz and I are kindred spirits when it comes to having a strong sense of our cultural identity.  It’s true that in some ways, we couldn’t be more different. She’s Muslim; I was raised Catholic. She’s of Turkish descent; I’m of Ecuadorian. Her native language is Turkish, mine’s Spanish.  Despite our differences, we’re bonded by how much our cultures mean to us. And by being likeminded on something so deeply rooted, we support each other without hesitation. I know, for instance, that I can count on Deniz eventually supporting me and even helping me teach Aylin to dance a San Juanito (folkoric Ecuadorian dance), and Deniz can rest assured she’ll have an ally in teaching Aylin to sing Baris Manco (Turkish folk singer) songs.  The same is already true with language. We already keep each other honest by reminding ourselves to speak to Aylin only in Turkish and Spanish.

Another important thing we have going for us: we don’t have to look past our own parents to teach us how to raise bilingual children. They really blazed the trail for us.  Deniz’s Turkish parents and my Ecuadorian parents didn’t buy into the big American immigrant fallacy, which suggests that to assimilate you need to somehow shed off your culture and forget the language. As first-generation, hyphenated-Americans, Deniz and I were raised to love, serve, and bleed red, white, and blue, while preserving the rich, textured, multicolored fabrics that also made us Turkish and Ecuadorian, respectively. Even though our English may have carried a slight accent early on, since we both learned our parents’ languages first, we certainly didn’t allow our accents to bound or curtail our patriotism for the land of our birth.

Our parents also staunchly subscribed to a simple but effective method at home, which we plan to adopt: the “no comprendo” method in my case and the “anlamadim” method in Deniz’s. It simply means, “I don’t understand,” which is exactly what we’d hear our parents say if we tried to pull a fast one on them and talk to them in English at home.  Although our parents spoke English perfectly and were not hard of hearing, they checked it at the door and stubbornly and consistently turned an “English-only” deaf ear on us. The challenge will be a little more difficult for Deniz and I because, unlike our parents, English comes most naturally for us, and because we communicate with each other in English—yet another reason we’re bent on learning each other’s language.

We’ve read a few books on the subject of raising bilingual children. We recognize this quest has its share of detractors, and it can even present some unintended consequences, such as a delay in children speaking. And we also know the road ahead will require patience and relentlessness.  But these are risks and the commitment we’re willing to take on to ensure we do not deny our Aylin of her rightful inheritance. We now completely understand what parents mean when they say they want their kids to be better of than them. We suppose this is a good start towards that end.

Mario Iván Oña is a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer and a freelance journalist. He’s written about music and culture for The Washington Post and various other local and national publications. His published work can be read on his blog: http://vayaconmusic.blogspot.com/. He currently works for the Department of the Navy. He married the love of his life in 2005, and five years later, they had their first child—a little girl. If you look closely at her tiny ring finger, it’s likely you’ll see him wrapped around it.

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