Thursday, March 29, 2012

You speak a foreign language? Teach it to your kid!

Posted By on Thu, Mar 29, 2012 at 4:18 PM

Can I be critical and opinionated for just a quick second? Okay, thanks.

I think that immigrant parents who don't speak their native tongue to their kids are doing them a huge disservice. And whenever I encounter one speaking in often broken and accented English with their offspring I have to take deep breaths to overcome the overwhelming desire I get to slap some sense into them. Don't they realize that speaking a foreign language to their kids now pretty much guarantees them a successful career in the future? Don't they know that those kids are going to learn English anyway from TV and school? Ugh!

One of the first major parenting decisions Tony and I made, even before our son was born, was to only speak to him in Spanish. Now that he's almost three, he can fully understand and communicate as well as a toddler can in both languages.

For a long time, as Luki discovered language, he didn't realize that Spanish and English were different. He heard Spanish at home and English at daycare, but in his mind everything formed part of the same big lexicon. As I began to realize he understood and spoke some English, I'd try to quiz him and ask, in Spanish, "Como se dice 'agua' en ingles?" and he would respond, in Spanish, and without the slightest hint of sarcasm, "Agua en ingles." Yet, sometimes, he'd randomly ask us for water using the English word for it.

It wasn't until a recent two week trip to Venezuela that Luki began to understand that English and Spanish are two different languages. It all started on the plane, where he heard the pilot make announcements, first in English, then in Spanish. "Mami, the pilot speaks Spanish like me!!" he said wide-eyed. And the entire time we were down there he continued to be amazed at the family members, and restaurant waitresses, and shopkeepers who all spoke Spanish.

What do you mean everyone in this country speaks Spanish??
  • What do you mean everyone in this country speaks Spanish??

When I was in college I had a good friend who was a first generation son of Latino immigrants. His parents never spoke Spanish to him growing up and, as an eighteen year old freshman, he really wished he had a full handle on the language. He told me his parents didn't teach him because they were embarrassed, they got made fun of for speaking Spanish and didn't want the same thing to happen to their kids.

After being in this parenting gig for almost three years, I can relate. I've gotten a few funny looks from other moms at the playground when they hear me switch from my English conversation with them to a Spanish one with my son. And I've heard an American relative condescendingly correct my son (more than once) with the English definition of a Spanish word he's uttered.

You know? Maybe I should have started this post by ranting against these folk instead of immigrant parents. These monolinguals who have turned a blind eye to the abundance of evidence in favor of speaking a second language because "this is America and we speak American."

But I still believe that, if parents speak a foreign language, they should teach that foreign language to their kids no matter what. No excuses. We'll have the last laugh when our kids are scoring above average on the SATs and considered the most desirable candidates for jobs.

Luckily, Luki is not the least bit embarrassed by his bilingualism. On the plane home, he said to me, "Mami, the pilot speaks both! Spanish and English! Just like me! I'm like the pilot!"

And what kid doesn't want to be a pilot?

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