There we were, trapped on a rowboat in the middle of a lake in China. The man rowing the tourist boat refused to take us any further without a large bonus payment. Instead of giving in to his demand, my husband and I emphatically motioned for him to return us to shore. As we disembarked, he launched into an angry tirade that didn’t need translation.
Just then, a mother and her young daughter strolled by, slowing down to watch the scene. The little girl, about seven years old, asked us in English what the problem was. We told her and watched in amazement as she effortlessly switched to Mandarin and explained the situation to her mother. Then they both gave the boatsman a fierce verbal lashing. He rowed away in a huff. We thanked the mother-daughter team before wandering away in a daze.
I think about this story often now that my own daughter is around the same age as that little girl and starting her second year in a dual language immersion school. I feel certain that she will, someday soon, be translating for us, her monolingual parents.
It’s not as if my husband and I didn’t try to become multilingual, but we’re both products of the American educational system, which has a history of teaching language backwards. (Only English in the early years and forcing a second language later, using the least successful method.) I studied Spanish because my grandparents and great-grandparents lived in Panama and my closest cousin was half-Mexican. Rob chose French because his brother was a cyclist in France. Neither of us came even close to fluency.
We were sure we would quickly learn Korean when we moved there to teach English. However, after three years we realized that working with English speakers, living with English speakers and teaching English all day does not lead to second language acquisition. We learned “survival Korean” well, but really craved the ability to carry on conversations with more depth.
What our experience abroad drove home was this: being bilingual is a life changing skill, and one that will be increasingly important in the future. It widens job possibilities, improves cognitive abilities, and opens doors to worlds of culture, travel, and relationships that would otherwise be closed. (And it could possibly help avoid being swindled by unsavory characters in boats.)
We moved to Texas and I continued to teach ESL. But after 10 years in that career I was coming to the conclusion that this method of teaching is limited and will, alone, never lead to true bilingualism. I saw it again and again; becoming bilingual only happens in immersion situations.
So when my daughter was two I started looking around for the location of public Spanish immersion schools in Austin. Surely this progressive town, with its large hispanic population and a huge university, would be flooded with schools teaching this proven method. I was floored when I realized there were ZERO. What followed was a four year battle to open a public dual language school. I am very happy to say my daughter started attending last fall. And our bilingual journey officially began.
Half of the students in her class are Spanish speakers (or bilingual) and half are monolingual English speakers. She is taught half of her subjects in English and half in Spanish. This is called a 50/50 Two-Way Dual Language Immersion program. It may seem like a huge leap for a 5-year-old to spend so much time in a language she doesn’t understand, learning skills she needs to know. But, for the kids, the biggest hurdle of the year was actually just being Kindergarteners. The fact that half the experience was in Spanish was beside the point. It seemed perfectly natural to them because, well, they had never been in Kindergarten before.
We are all excited about the beginning of our second year and our future as a bilingual family. As for me, I’m working on my Spanish. Slowly. But I spend a lot of time dreaming of an immersion vacation abroad. At least my kids will be able to translate.