Sunday, December 30, 2007

A Few Musings on Language

For someone who is hell-bent on teaching her children Spanish, never mind the fact that I’m a professional translator/interpreter, you would think I’d have done tons of research on the subject, but I haven’t, really. Other than a few articles I’ve read online and in the newspaper, and the information I learned at a wonderful conference on the subject where I was lucky enough to interpret, I really haven’t looked into it. In my case, I’m going mostly on my own experience and what worked for my parents, and what I’ve seen work or not work for others.

My parents used what is now known as the one-parent-one-language approach with my brother and me, though I’m not sure that term existed back in the seventies. We lived in the U.S. until I was eight, and the rule was: Spanish with my mom, English with my dad. Period. The other unbreakable rule was, nothing but Spanish was to be spoken at the dinner table. They were absolute hardasses when it came to both of those rules. If we spoke English at the table, they pretended not to understand and we had to repeat ourselves in Spanish, with their help if we needed it.

There are a lot of things I remember about learning both languages growing up, and the emotional pull of those memories is pretty strong. For one thing, I remember not liking the feeling of standing out. When we lived in the U.S., I really wanted to speak what my friends at school spoke. I didn’t want to be different. I spoke to my brother in English, and that was our special language. When we moved to Costa Rica, the tables were turned. Then we had to speak English at the dinner table. All of a sudden, Spanish was the language that made us fit in, and my brother and I started speaking Spanish with each other, which we still do today. Speaking English would feel unnatural at this point.

My parents owned a business and made an OK living, but they were the kind of people who didn’t need much and actually did without a few things so that we could afford others. Our house was not in the greatest shape and they weren’t so big on home improvement, even though that would have been money well spent, but boy, they made sure we traveled. When we lived in the U.S, we traveled to Costa Rica, and vice versa. The connection to our family, languages and cultures was incredibly important to them. So were books. As a child, I remember all the stories and poems my mother read us in Spanish. In Costa Rica, there was exactly one English-language bookstore in the country when we moved there, and those books were not cheap. Yet my parents took us there regularly and there were no limits on what we could buy. We took Spanish classes in California, and in Costa Rica my parents paid a bundle for our education at a chi-chi bilingual private school (I hated it, which is another story, but I realize I got a great education). When I hear so many second-generation children with surnames like López and García say, “Gee, I wish my parents had taught me Spanish,” I’m all too aware of the tremendous effort it takes to make it actually happen.

Right now, Primo and Secondo speak way more Spanish than English, which I love. I’m strictly enforcing the “Spanish with Mama” rule, and I also plan on being a hardass about it, though I sometimes feel like I’m being rude when we’re out in public. I’ve seen several parents relax that rule, then relax it some more, and it seems to me that then it’s all downhill from there. The boys’ babysitter doesn’t even speak English. Their language skills are coming along and they amaze me every day.

I find my own experience learning two languages as a child both encouraging and scary. For one thing, though I never really rebelled, I remember that feeling of not wanting to feel different. That’s kind of hard to counteract. Plus, Spanish was hard when I was very young. English was easy. That was what I wanted to speak. Also, we moved to a Spanish-speaking country when I was eight, which made all the difference. That will most likely never happen for my kids, so I feel like I’ll be fighting an uphill battle, especially once they start school. I listened to an awesome program on NPR the other day that referred to that as a “tidal wave” of English. The speakers also talked about making the second language fun. I’m as obsessed with books as my parents were. I just dropped a chunk of change on books in Spanish at the bookstore in Costa Rica. The boys’ great-aunt and great-uncle gave them $30, which I spent on more books in Spanish that I found on Amazon. I tend to buy books every time someone gives them cash. My in-laws believe in buying them bonds, I believe in books.

Reading what I’ve written, it strikes me that I may be taking all of this too seriously. It’s just so important to me, for many reasons. Obviously, for one thing, after all of my parents’ hard work, I got my MA in Conference Interpretation, an achievement which makes me incredibly proud. It wasn't easy. But I don’t just want my boys to learn Spanish because it’s useful. Much of my family doesn’t even speak English. And it’s a part of my heritage, and therefore theirs as well. My dad constantly told my brother and me that we had the best of both worlds. And though it might have sounded cheesy and made me roll my eyes as a teenager, he was absolutely right.

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