Last week, I shared a link to an EFE story I was interviewed for regarding the current state of the Spanish language in the United States. One of the other people interviewed is a woman who runs a language school for children here in Denver and one of her quotes caught my attention. She said: “Bilingual people must possess a certain mastery of both their languages… speaking them is not enough. Writing, reading and comprehension are integral parts of learning a language.”
And the debate about what it means to be truly bilingual started all over again in my head. Is this woman right? Does one have to speak, read and write in their second language to be considered truly bilingual? As with other subjective questions, let me begin by establishing that there’s no right or wrong definition. I mean, there’s the definition given by the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary: “using or able to use two languages especially with equal fluency.” But does “using” mean speaking, writing and reading? A lot of people consider themselves bilingual and they only know how to speak the language, but can’t write or read it properly.
For me, it has always come down to this: As a journalist, could I apply for a job that requires me to do research, interviews and then write a story in English and Spanish? In other words, can I write, read, understand and speak both languages well enough to succeed in the job described above? The answer is yes, not only because I believe I can do it, but because that’s basically what I’ve done since I became a journalist 20 years ago.
As a Latina writer who is very proud of her heritage, nothing would be more disappointing to me than raising children who are only able to speak my mother tongue, but can’t write it or read it. I can’t imagine my daughter — who is well on her way to becoming a bookworm like me— reading Mario Vargas Llosa in English (kudos to those who have, but I’d be lying if I said it is the same) or my son unable to write a Christmas card to his monolingual bisabuela in Spanish.
Because my kids are not lucky enough to go to a dual language immersion school, making sure they’re truly bilingual (based on my definition) is up to me. As I’ve mentioned in the past, Vanessa reads and writes in Spanish not because I sat down to teach her, but because she transferred those skills from English to Spanish. In other words, I got lucky. I don’t know if that’ll be the case with Santiago. Even if it is, I know they would still need formal instruction in Spanish so they can learn all the grammar and spelling rules — and exceptions — of my native language.
What I would like is for my kids to feel as comfortable in Spanish as they do in English regardless of the setting — just like me. My life is definitely richer because of it. Ojalá un día mis hijos puedan decir lo mismo…
Do you think your kids need to read & write in their second language to be truly bilingual?