Bilingual is Better

There are two things my mother-in-law and I had decided before Sabrina was born. The first was that she would be called Oma (abuelita in German) because she very much identifies with her German roots. Her family immigrated in the late 18th century to the United States via Russia. Both her parents (Sabrina’s bisabuelos) first language was German.

The second thing we had decided was that she, being the Oma or second generation German-American, would speak to her in English and Abuelito would speak to her in Spanish. Recently, I noticed that my mother-in-law was starting to speak in Spanish and English to Sabrina. In the middle of noticing this it occurred to me that she might be worried about Sabrina not understanding her! When I asked her she responded, to my surprise, “I am afraid Sabrina doesn’t know me because she doesn’t understand English,” which is the very reason why we had decided to teach her Spanish! We want her to know her family’s roots. We want her to know that she is Latina. We want her to see and interpret the world with at least two languages: Spanish and English. We want her to embrace both her Mexican and Ecuadorian heritage, but in the midst of focusing on the minority language I, in a way, forgot that she, too, has a German history.

I think it is interesting to note that immigration in our country has always had different waves throughout history. At the turn of the century there were many immigrants that came from different European countries. During WWII German-speaking individuals were stigmatized for obvious reasons (i.e., holocaust), which resulted in German language schools to, essentially, shut down. In other words, many, many immigrants follow the same pattern of losing their native language by the second and third generations. I could go on about how the Latino immigration experience is very different and almost not comparable to the European immigrant experience at the turn of the century, but that would require a whole new post.

On our most recent trip to La Miranda (what we call la casa de los abuelitos) I found myself saying to Sabrina “La Oma habla inglés” or “El abuelito habla español” which was such a rewarding thing to have to say since we have been making a huge effort to only speak to her in Spanish. As my bebita continues to learn the intricacies of language-use, I am certain that what she is also picking up on are the messages we send, and to a large degree messages that take precedence over oral language, which are those we express with a smile, a hug, a kiss, or a caress — the language of love.

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