For Parents

Alma Flor Ada On Help­ing Our Chil­dren Grow Up Bilingually

orig­i­nally posted on Latin Baby Book Club, Sun­day, April 25, 2010

Latino par­ents are fre­quently con­cerned about their children’s lan­guage devel­op­ment. They want to make sure that their chil­dren learn to speak Eng­lish very well. It is a valid con­cern, and every­one wish­ing the well­be­ing of Latino chil­dren want them to learn Eng­lish well.

The prob­lem is that there is a pop­u­lar mis­con­cep­tion that chil­dren will learn Eng­lish bet­ter if they are encour­aged, or allowed, to use only Eng­lish even when the parent’s lan­guage may be Span­ish. This is not so.

When a child has a well devel­oped first lan­guage, in this case, Span­ish, they will learn bet­ter the sec­ond lan­guage, in this case, Eng­lish. All the skills they have acquired in the first lan­guage will trans­fer to the sec­ond one.

Par­ents will be able to develop bet­ter the lan­guage they know best. If that lan­guage is Span­ish, that is the lan­guage they should model for their children.

A child who learns to speak two lan­guages will have many more oppor­tu­ni­ties than a mono­lin­gual child. But impor­tant as the oppor­tu­ni­ties offered by know­ing two lan­guages, there are more pow­er­ful rea­sons to encour­age a child to grow up bilingually.

If the pri­mary lan­guage of par­ents, grand­par­ents, or care­givers is Span­ish the chil­dren who can only speak Eng­lish will be deprived of the very valu­able cul­tural and human enrich­ment that they could receive in Span­ish. And this is a loss that can­not be overestimated.

Many par­ents empha­size Eng­lish, dis­re­gard­ing Span­ish, con­sid­er­ing that in this way their chil­dren will be bet­ter able to com­pete and suc­ceed in an English-speaking world. What is very unfor­tu­nate is that they fail to real­ize that the World is becom­ing less and less mono­lin­gual, and that many English-speaking par­ents are choos­ing to ensure that their chil­dren become bilin­gual. Thus, some­day Lati­nos may find them­selves not being in a good com­pet­i­tive sit­u­a­tion not because they do not know Eng­lish, but because they know only Eng­lish, when oth­ers, who had no Latino her­itage, have become flu­ent two languages.

Human beings are extra­or­di­nar­ily able to sur­vive lim­i­ta­tions, but, given a choice, two feet make life eas­ier than one, two hands, eas­ier than one. Why would it be dif­fi­cult to real­ize that two lan­guages will pro­vide twice as many oppor­tu­ni­ties than one?

My own life has been enriched by bilin­gual­ism. I did not have the good for­tune of grow­ing up bilin­gual, and had to go the long route of learn­ing Eng­lish when already almost an adult. Yet, know­ing two lan­guages has given me great oppor­tu­ni­ties –for work, for pro­fes­sional enrich­ment, for trav­el­ing, for devel­op­ing friend­ships and rela­tion­ships, for grow­ing in under­stand­ing of other human beings. If I were to sin­gle out the most valu­able tool in my life it would be know­ing two lan­guages, and when I have recently pub­lished my life mem­oirs I have called it Vivir en dos idiomas or “liv­ing in two lan­guages” to acknowl­edge the sig­nif­i­cance of my two lan­guages in my long and rich life.

I chose to bring up my own four chil­dren speak­ing Span­ish. It was the only lan­guage used at home. They learned Eng­lish in school not only with­out dif­fi­culty, but rather with the added sup­port of know­ing well another lan­guage. Today all four are very suc­cess­ful pro­fes­sion­als in dif­fer­ent areas –each and every­one has ben­e­fited from being bilingual.

Latino chil­dren have a most rich cul­tural her­itage that they will never be able to fully enjoy unless they know Span­ish well. Let’s not deprive out chil­dren from this right­ful her­itage, let’s give them the power of two lan­guages, the joy of bilin­gual­ism, the oppor­tu­nity to do twice as much good unto others.

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