bilingualism is a gift

Recently, Roxana asked “Is it Wrong for Bilingual Children in the US to Learn Spanish before English?” Among the comments on SpanglishBaby’s Facebook page, one comment particularly struck me… a fellow SpanglishBaby contributor Suzanne Mateus, said “the controversy is particularly sensitive when the children come from working class homes.”  Suzanne makes a great point. People’s reaction to a parent speaking to her child in Spanish (or any other minority language) might vary depending on their perceptions of who you are.

When you’re a Hispanic mom talking to your child in Spanish, many people assume you are doing so because you don’t speak English. When I speak to Enzo in Spanish, and then conduct transactions in perfect English, people don’t know what “box” to put me in. Where is she from? Is she American? Is she an immigrant? Is she rich? Is she poor? Why is she speaking to her son in Spanish?

If people think you’re a recently arrived immigrant, the thought seems to be “Why can’t you learn English?” or “You’re ruining your child’s life because now the kid won’t learn proper English.”

Once you’re seen as a professional, attitudes change. You start hearing things like “Oh he’s bilingual? What a wonderful gift you’re giving him.” Or “How amazing that he can understand and speak in all those languages. That’s going to help him when he’s in school.”  Or “He will have many wonderful opportunities.” It seems society says it’s great to want your children to be bilingual if you are rich, but it’s a hindrance if you are poor or an immigrant.

This point is illustrated in this quote by American linguist J.A. Fishman, which  my friend Annabelle from PiriPiri Lexicon shares on her blog about raising multilingual children:

“Many Americans have long been of the opinion that bilingualism is ‘a good thing’ if it was acquired via travel (preferably to Paris) or via formal education (preferably at Harvard) but that it is a ‘bad thing’ if it was acquired from one’s immigrant parents or grandparents.”

In toddler classes I have attended, many monolingual parents hire Spanish (or other language) speaking nannies so that their children can be exposed to another language. I have actually encountered children who have become fluent in Spanish by having a Spanish-speaking childcare provider. These parents are usually lauded for their efforts (and dollars!) to expose their children to other languages.

Today, children’s language classes are booming (and they can be quite expensive!) Are we saying it is OK for wealthy parents to spend money to have their children become bilingual, but it’s not OK for parents with lesser means to speak their language to their children?

Parents from any socio-economic status who decide to raise bilingual children are giving their children a great gift, a gift that money alone can not buy; because no number of hours at a language school can equal the richness of speaking and learning a language 24/7, with all its intricacies and the culture that is attached to it. Parents who have embarked on this journey should feel happy about the advantages and opportunities they are giving their children.

I hope that our country recognizes the benefits of bilingualism, and immigrants (both newly arrived and second or third generation) parents do not get discouraged by remarks or ” looks” thrown their way.

The truth is being bilingual gives individuals a competitive advantage. It really doesn’t matter to me if someone gives me a look or just wonders why I’m speaking to my child in Spanish, or if they assume I don’t speak English. Criticizing is easy. Raising a multilingual child requires dedication, commitment and hard work.

{Photo by Clearwater Public Library System Photos}

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