When my first daughter was born in July of 2010, there was never any question that we were going to raise her to be bilingual. My wife is from Lima, Peru, and though we decided to reside in the United States, we agreed that the Peruvian half of our child’s heritage would have an equal place in our home and family. Having met my wife when I lived in Lima, I’d grown accustomed to speaking with her in Spanish. We welcomed our second daughter in 2012, and have continued to be a Spanish speaking household. However what is “normal” for us is not the norm of the United States, and soon we discovered that what we perceived to be an advantage, would also bring its share of challenges to our children.
“They call me ‘Spanish Girl’,” my daughter said one day as I brought her home from the day’s classes.
“Who?” I asked. My daughter is always happy, and I could tell from the set of her face that this comment had saddened her.
“Some of the boys.”
“Does it bother you that they call you that?”
“Sometimes when people can’t do something, they are mean to people who can.”
My daughter didn’t answer me. School can be a cruel place, and I’d already had to deal with the inevitable “I need to lose weight” type concerns that all girls unfairly seem to bring home sooner or later. Such tribulations are to be expected when you become a parent; however, I hadn’t thought I’d be hearing them coming from a five-year-old.
Sometimes teaching conformity seems to be the overwhelming objective of our school system. If you came into a basic math class comprehending Calculus, you’d probably be equally ridiculed by your peers. It’s no secret that every time education comes into the public dialogue, the overwhelming impulse is to cut funding. How exactly are you supposed to encourage your children to study when achievement is ridiculed and education itself is so publicly disparaged?
My children, who are now five and seven, are completely fluent in Spanish. It has been an amazing process to watch. Where abstract concepts are difficult for them to grasp, language flows in without obstruction. Children have minimal vocabulary, so language acquisition is easy and fun at their age. Why is the American education system so willing to fail to take advantage of this critical developmental period when the mind is most open to absorbing a valuable life skill?
“This is America, we speak English!”
The phrase was uttered to my wife at a drive-in by some high schoolers who were simply acting tough for their girlfriends. I wasn’t present, of course. My wife told me when I came back from concessions.
“They said what?” I asked, looking around.
“Don’t go over there.”
I saw three seventeen-year-old boys sitting by their car, trying to act like they didn’t notice me. But they noticed. You could tell because they’d all gone quiet. I was pawing at the ground like a bear.
My wife was right. When you’re a dad, you don’t "go over there."
“Let’s get out of here,” I said, loading the kids into the family vehicle. I said it in Spanish, screaming it across the parking lot.
I talk in Spanish a lot—loudly—in public. My girls have to know it’s OK to speak it. People won’t tell a full grown man not to, but they’ll tell vulnerable little kids.
My wife works with immigrant families in the local school district. Many of them discourage their children from speaking their native languages.
“We are supposed to integrate to the United States,” they say. Though the message is never overtly stated, it’s overwhelmingly clear. These are hard-working, honest people, many of whom have escaped terrible situations and just want a chance at a better life.
“You don’t have to give up where you came from,” my wife tells them. “You are allowed to speak Spanish.”
“Ha!” they reply, “if they wanted us to speak Spanish, they’d be teaching it at the schools. You and I know better. It’s safer to speak only English. Speaking Spanish makes you a target.”
During the Trump campaign, the admonitions became more frequent. I’d hear “Speak English” called out even when I was near and visible.
“The national language is English!”
“Actually it isn’t,” I’d reply. “The United States doesn’t have a national language.”
The problem with the ignorant is that they always outnumber you.
My children have a father and a mother who engage with them and have spoken Spanish to them in every waking moment since they were born. However, the dominant language of my children is English. They get it from the TV, they get it from school, they get it when we go out in public. Little by little, they come to resist speaking in Spanish. I’ll ask them a question in Spanish and they’ll answer in English. They feel the ever present pressure not to speak Spanish.
“Answer me in Spanish,” I’ll say, and I won’t allow them to squirrel away from the obligation.
In the summer, I try to take them to Peru to visit family. The second you leave the borders of the United States, the world opens up; a weight is lifted. The sparkle returns to my daughters’ eyes as they are finally free to speak with no specter of objection.
Why do they carry this belief that it’s wrong to speak Spanish?
A second language accelerates your cognitive processes. It helps you identify parts of speech, improves your grammar, gives you a greater understanding of linguistic influence. A second language opens doors, makes you a more coveted employee, gives you the chance to immerse yourself in the cultures of the world.
Learning a second language makes you free.
After watching what my daughters have had to go through, I’m not sure the US wants its people to be free.
“They call me ‘Spanish girl,’ Daddy.”
“You have to take that as a compliment,” I reply.
“I don’t think they mean it that way.”
But it doesn’t matter how they mean it. The only thing that matters is how you take it. You can’t surrender your autonomy to the perspectives or demands of anyone else. As a parent, I knew I’d have to teach this lesson eventually, but I didn’t think I’d have to teach it to a five and a seven-year-old. Nevertheless, it’s an important lesson, so I don’t mind addressing it early.
About the Author:
Walter Rhein is the author of Reckless Traveler, an expat novel about ten years spent living in South America.