Thirty four years ago, my husband and I arrived in the United States with our baggage full of hope and with the idea that one day we would be able to fulfill the “American dream”, a house, work and eventually children who would communicate in Spanish and English. Twenty nine years ago when I learned that I was pregnant, the first thing that crossed my mind was that we had to speak, read and sing to her in Spanish. This was the beginning of long chats and singing sessions with a repertoire that included songs that my mother, my aunt and my grandmother used to sing to me. At the time, I am not sure if men sang to their babies, but my husband did.
During the entire pregnancy, we constantly read stories to the baby, and I would also add descriptions of each day to prepare her for the life that awaited outside the womb. I began with the description of summer, then the advent of the colorful and splendid fall in the District, and finally I began to tell her about the winter. I told her about the beautiful appearance of the first snow and how it adorned the nude branches of the frozen trees. It was January when she announced her arrival. My husband drove directly to Georgetown, and once we got there, there was so much snow that I could hardly walk to the emergency room.
The birth of a baby is an extraordinary experience as most of you know; however, I remember forbidding my husband to say the word “push” for a week. We thanked the entire universe for allowing us to have a healthy and energetic daughter. One thing was clear to us; we needed to learn about child rearing. Since both of us were educators with minors in Spanish, we decided to research bilingual education. There was not much information in the United States, and what we found were mostly opinions stating that the learning of two languages could lead to speech delays. Deep inside my heart and brain, I knew that this could not be true, since I had been one of those children who grew up in a bilingual home. No matter where we lived, my father would only speak English to me and my mother, Spanish. With that in mind, I decided to continue my search for answers to the bilingual puzzle. I knew that in Quebec people spoke in French as well as English, and that Quebec was officially bilingual. I knew that the answer to my questions would come from Canada, our neighbor country. I found many interesting articles written by Professor James Cummings of the University of Toronto. In an article dated 1987, Professor J. Cummings assured that being able to communicate in two languages was an advantage, adding that this learning positively impacted cognitive growth. My own experience confirmed this constructive assertion, so I knew that we were doing the right thing with the upbringing of our daughter. However, at the same time, there was another relevant truth: Education researchers in the United States spoke of the tremendous gap that existed between Hispanic and white students in the American schools. In the Hispanic Education: a Statistical Portrait 1990, by Denise De La Rosa and Carlyle E. Maw (ERIC), the report mentions titles such as “Hispanics are the most undereducated segment of the population”, “Hispanic students face serious difficulties”, or “Hispanic enrollment in higher education is low…” Against all these odds, I remained loyal to my own experience and the Canadian theories on bilingualism.
First let me give you a simple definition of bilingualism: it is the ability to communicate in two languages. However, it is worth mentioning that there are several shades within this description of bilingualism. One can speak correctly in two languages or incorrectly in both, with the inclusion of many proficiency levels between the two extremes. The glossary pertaining to second language acquisition is so extensive that one never ceases to learn. I will try to synthesize what I learned from some of the articles by Professor J. Cummings: There is a first language (L1) which refers to the language spoken in the home, also called “minority language”, and then there is a second language (L2) which is the language spoken elsewhere or the language of the majority. In my personal situation, our daughter, and two and half years later, our son, only heard Spanish inside the house and English in school, the park, and play time with friends. Every time we traveled to a Spanish speaking country we would buy cartoon videos in Spanish and cd’s with songs and stories in Spanish. However, no matter what we did, the power of the English language was pervasive.
Before adding to these concepts of language acquisition, I would like to revisit what I mentioned before about speaking two languages correctly or incorrectly, as well as the different proficiency levels that exist when one communicates in two languages. What Professor J. Cummings says about cognition and competence of a language relates to the “different shades” of bilingualism. The professor defines the differences between “Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills” (BICS) and the “Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency” (CALP) being the latter – the one which gives the student the tools to deal with the learning challenges that go on in the school. Cummings states that some of the students who do not speak the language of the majority may develop “BICS” in this language in about two years; however, he goes on asserting that it takes anywhere from five to seven years for a student to achieve academic competence in a language other than the mother tongue.
What I find amazing in this linguistic journey is what Professor J. Cummings explains about the process of learning the first language (L1). Cummings believes that cognition and language acquisition steps in the student’s primary language establish a basis for learning additional languages. My own children, once again, serve as an example of this learning. When my children began school, they studied both English and French in elementary school. In other words, having competence in one language seemed to accelerate their acquisition of additional languages. For those families who speak other languages, my advice is to continue doing so. When families strongly believe in the value of learning different languages, this sends a very powerful message to their children: Communicating in more than one language is valuable. Yet, being bilingual means more than speaking the language, it means to be able to read, write, understand and enjoy this experience. This is what I meant when I said that you could speak two languages correctly or incorrectly.
Sadly in some places of the United States as well as in other countries known for their beliefs in cultural exclusion, students can be excluded as a result of using their native tongue in the school. Minority students may feel different and think that to be different is not “cool”, “no es chévere” in Spanish or “ce n’est pas “cool” in French. This is why our role as family and community members is to demonstrate the importance of speaking more than one language. In the case of our family, it was not easy to convince our children that knowing Spanish was a gift.
Once my children were in school full time, the struggle to change the stigma of the term “Hispanic” as a “lower achiever”, was a challenge and a label which I was not going to accept. One of our children, in the early years had more difficulties in communicating in English. I was immediately advised by some of the school counselors and even a bilingual speech therapist, that the family should only speak English in the home. Well, this was not going to happen. Once again, I remembered what I had learned from reading the articles of Professor Cummings, about English only language programs. Cummings claims that in order to obtain positive results in bilingual education and avoid “cognitive deficits”, children need to reach a threshold level of proficiency in their L1 as well as a firm grasp of academic language, the one that give the student the ability to grasp learning challenges at school (CALP) before academic achievement can flourish in a second language. In other words: to deprive a child of his or her native tongue negatively impacts the learning process and academic achievement of a child. What one, as a member of the local community and the school system, need to understand is that it may take more time to attain the same level of proficiency in two or more languages; nevertheless, be assured that this will happen.
Having researched the negative results of, for “English only” language programs, I decided to found a Saturday Spanish Immersion School. My children and I agreed that during the week, they would study other World Languages in the American school, while on Saturdays they would continue learning Spanish as well as the history and literature of the many Spanish speaking countries. Getting the children to accept going to school on Saturdays was not an easy deal to make, but once they arrived at the Saturday school, they met with other students and their families who were also embarking on the Spanish exploration journey, and they had fun. I told them that everything was negotiable, except Spanish school. My statement did not help end either the grumpiness or the tears when they claimed they were too tired or did not want to go to Spanish school. Despite all the complaints voiced many early Saturday mornings, my children graduated from Spanish school, thrived in their American school, and took and succeeded on the AP examinations in more than one language. This is why, I am convinced that the effort and commitment to bilingual education is worth it! I believe that learning to communicate in different languages is important for our intellectual development and for our understanding of the different cultures of the world. A language is not just a code but a set of customs and beliefs which may vary from country to country. It is this diversity what enriches us as citizens of the world, fostering global understanding which is so much needed today and always.
Last year, during our school Bethesda International School Open House, I overheard my daughter telling a new family not to worry, that their children would thank them once they turned 21. Even today as adults, my children share a love for learning, travelling around the world, and using their acquired knowledge of languages and cultures to communicate with the people they meet in the different countries.
In more recent studies, Professor Cummings speaks of the importance of keeping the first language in this global society which embraces families with children who speak other languages and have different customs. Without a doubt, the different education systems in the entire world need to continue exploring different ways to interact and reach out to all the families that conform this new diverse community. We all read about the importance of tolerance and appreciation of gender, ethnicity, and religious diversity; however, when speaking of the students’ linguistic diversity which schools face today, this is still approached as a problem, rather than a quest for further research to learn how to better serve all the students. Cummings strongly suggests that students should be encouraged to continue their native language (L1) development and that learning a new language should always be a summative process.
One of my language teacher friends believes that assimilation is the key to success in the American culture, and I argue that the word “assimilate” often means forgetting one’s cultural roots. I prefer to use the term “integration” as a means for a student to succeed in a new linguistic and cultural environment. I tell my students that it is beautiful to read, write and understand other languages, incorporating all the good things that we can learn from the United States or any country where we reside. This is how children can grow – by seeing, thinking, and expressing themselves in the languages they learn. Furthermore, having competence in more than one language opens up the door to many possibilities of achievement required in the world we live in today.
Viviana Cruz is the founder and current principal of Bethesda International School, Saturday Spanish Immersion program.
Edited by Lisa Lynch, board member of Bethesda International School and French teacher.