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Studies to Prove Bilingualism is Good? Ay!

Submitted by on October 25, 2011 – 10:24 am15 Comments

bilingual education by jennratonmort on flickr

Sometimes, hearing stories and studies about bilingualism and bilingual education make me want to bang my big fat cabeza against a wall. A thick wall. Even when the stories and studies are praising the value of being bilingual.

Why do my pantalones get all up in a knot?

Because, really, who the heck doesn’t see the value in being bilingual? Who can truly make the case that bilingualism isn’t of benefit? Especially, when there are generations of us bilinguals living, and thriving and contributing in the United States?

NPR has done a wonderful series on being Latino in the United States this month. But, when I heard this in this morning’s report on a bilingual school, I almost had a patatú.

There are about 440 public bilingual immersion schools across the country, up from only a handful in the 1970s. A growing number today teach Mandarin and French, not just Spanish.

But in some states — California, Arizona, Colorado and Massachusetts — bilingual immersion programs are banned because a majority of voters don’t think children can learn proper English and hold on to a foreign language and culture at the same time.

It’s an issue that gets caught up in the angry debate over illegal immigration, especially from Spanish-speaking countries. Even in Miami, when Rosa de La O tells people her kids attend a bilingual school, some always ask, “Are we loyal? Are we not? Is a child is going to absorb that?” she says.

Every time I read, or hear about, a study saying bilingualism is good, I go “Duh.” Anytime I hear someone freaking out about, or deriding, Spanish-speakers I go “Really?” (or “Como?” depending on my mood)

To me, a study that concludes bilingualism is good is like a study that says eating fruits and vegetables is good. Of course, it is good.

These studies of bilingualism only serve to remind me there are plenty out there who put down bilinguals, Latinos, Spanish-speakers or anyone else with roots elsewhere …elsewhere being anywhere but where the critic thinks they should be.

Seriously, I want to bang my head.

I attended a little parochial school in Miami — founded in Cuba 100 years ago by American missionaries. We were taught in English and had two classes a day in Spanish: Bible study and Spanish language class.

Most of us were the children of exiles, most of whom had been in the United States less than 20 years at that time. We spoke Spanish at home and both English and Spanish at school. We switched back and forth with each other all day long.

Reunions and Facebook tell me my former classmates are smart, productive members of society in Miami, and beyond. They habla two languages sin problema. I think most of their kids do too, but certainly not the way we did when we were little. (Holding on to a Mother Tongue beyond the first and second generation growing up here in America takes work, si?)

As children, we didn’t think much about our dual language ability. It just was. And personally, in my youth, I found it shocking when someone didn’t speak two languages. No adult in our lives questioned our ability to learn, to grow, to prosper because we spoke en español. If anything, we always were told our bilingualism was a gift, keys to a kingdom called The American Dream.

I believed it then, and I believe it now.

It’s why I’m teaching my Nashville, TN-born semi-Latina to speak Spanish. It ain’t mucho easy, but I’m doing a pretty good job.

And, in teaching her stuff like aserrín, aserrán and a deep love of dulce de leche, I also feed her propaganda: “Speaking two languages helps with math and music!” “Speaking two languages means you can order ice cream and get directions in 21 different countries!” “Selena Gomez speaks Spanish too!”

Ay, bendito. I’m keeping the messages of worry, concern and disdain about bilingualism very far from my girl. In our world, it’s an asset.

Punto cerrado.

I don’t need a study to tell me so.

And, hear this: Bilingualism, and holding on to your Latino culture, doesn’t make you less American either.

Listen to the children quoted in the NPR story:

So how do the three children identify themselves?
“Umm … I guess Spanish-speaking American,” Anna says.
“American … I have to use [Spanish] with my grandparents,” Rebecca says, adding that she never uses it with her friends.
“I speak Spanglish… I say ‘Necesito ayuda con my homework,’” Miguel says.

More links to NPR’s recent Latinos in America stories, plus support — and yes, studies — for bilingualism can be found at my favorite site supporting bilingual and bicultural families, Spanglish Baby.

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15 Comments »

  • Great post – I completely agree. The fact that someone spent time, money, energy on such a study seems ridiculous. Especially when there are so many other things in the world that need attention.

    I wish that I was bilingual! One day, I’m going to teach myself.

  • Mary Lynn C says:

    I was born in the USA to Cuban parents who moved here in the 1940s. They met and married here. People are always amazed that I was born in the USA and speak Spanish well. Hey, we spoke it at home! My parents were both perfectly bilingual, but at home, Spanish was spoken. It has been an advantage at jobs, where having a second language, and that one being Spanish, was a boon.

    So, so silly to spend money on this type of a study. Look at all the successful people who are bilingual – doesn’t that tell you something?

  • Lisel Laslie says:

    Like you, I think these studies are silly and a waste of dinero!

    As one of your old classmates from that little escuelita in Miami that was founded 100 years ago…. I too have found that teaching the offspring is difficult- but worth it.

    I moved away from Miami long ago- and then truly found that being bilingual is a gift.

    Many times I have been the only person at work that could translate for scared patients that could not understand their nurses or doctors when I worked at one of the local hospitals- and for the last 9 years I have been serving the citizens of the my fine state – and when those that do not speak the language call in and have questions about processes- then I am there to always help…. I also used to teach at my kids daycare-talk about rewarding!

    Plus it’s always fun to find other Spanish speakers and chismear as well as tease the non-Spanish speakers about what we are talking about. :-)

    I have always felt that this made me more American than not- after all this country was founded by people from other places- no?

    • Carrie says:

      Lisel, I never thought I would use my Spanish here in Nashville and boy, did I ever! So, I hear you.

      I did have one Cuban co-worker for a while, and we did get some flack for hablando, but we were just talking silly stuff like sana sana and old songs and silly stuff our families did. Working with him was the best ever. I needed the Spanish doses I got with him. (He later became my Los Pollitos Dicen partner!)

  • Fortunately, I’ve never run into direct bashings or criticisms of bilingualism (though, my mother has been the victim of being bashed in public for speaking Spanish, to which ella a formado un escandalo tremdendo!). People that aren’t bilingual can’t even begin to understand the benefits of speaking 2 or more languages. I will say, I took it for granted up until I was in my mid-20s, only b/c I kept wondering “when is my Spanish going to benefit me and bring $$?!” Finalmente… I’m reaping the benefits my parents sowed.

  • OK, I will disagree that these studies are a waste of money..completely disagree, in fact.

    I do agree 100% on the premise that they are a bit obvious, they are..but only to those that ARE fortunate enough to grow up bilingually.

    The sudden proliferation of these studies has been incredibly beneficial in that they have attracted huge media attention (like NPR, Newsweek, NYT, CNN, etc) and are helping many, many skeptical parents convince themselves that sending their kids to a dual language immersion program is a very good thing.

    People need facts and scientific research like those presented by these studies showing how our bilingual brains are different than a monolingual brain. It´s fascinating!

    Remember that many of these disbelievers weren´t lucky enough to grow up in Miami where being Latino and speaking Spanish was considered an asset. Or, like me, in between the US and El Salvador and attending a private bilingual school.

    The vast majority of Latino and other ethnic groups have gone through horrible assimilation processes where they were forced to leave their native languages behind. We are now convincing their kids (today´s new parents) to forget what their parents went through and believe that bilingualism is in fact good…very good!

    So, I pray for these studies to continue proving to those that need the proof. Especially, those with the money, the power and the influence to change our public education system to have a second language taught in the early years; as early as preschool when our brain is equipped for it. And how do we know it´s equipped? Thanks to all these wonderful studies!

  • Thank you! its the best thing ever! Go Dora Dora!

  • Abuela says:

    Pobrecitos,mira que pensar porque hablas otro idioma el cerebro se va a reventar,acaso no tienen otros estudios mas importantes, en Europa las personas hablan varios idiomas asi que pa’lante con el español o cualquier otro idioma que quieran aprender.Eso nos hace mas cultos.

  • I was in a bi-lingual class as a little girl here in Los Angeles, and so was my fiance. I think it’s the reason I’m able to understand and speak some spanish. I didn’t speak spanish at home, but all my friends at school did….. that’s where I got my basics. Thank the spanish gods. :) I intend on sending my son to a bilingual school and wouldn’t have it any other way.

  • Elisa says:

    ITA, Carrie! The bilingual-child-is-confused meme is so annoying — and American. I believe we are one of the only industrialized nations on earth that does not teach a second language to all children, starting in kindergarten. And don’t get me started about the bilingual education bans in California and Arizona. Ay!

  • [...] bilingualism good or bad? Well, of course it’s good, but Carrie at Tiki Tiki explains why the whole debate makes her “want to bang my big fat cabeza against a wall.” GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); [...]

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