They Still Speak Spanish at Home

I talk a lot to my fellow teachers, and many of them comment to me, “The family only speaks Spanish at home,” and look disapproving. They then glance at me, as though to elicit a similar disapproving response from me. I admit, I don’t give it to them.

The advantages of being bilingual are well documented.

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I won’t reiterate what these articles say, except to emphasize that being bilingual is an advantage. No bones about it.

foca

A funny bilingual cartoon I enjoy.

[Source]

So, I get frustrated when the teachers insist to me that a child not speaking his/her native language with his/her parents is detrimental. What good do they expect to come of it? They will probably not learn English any faster from non-native speakers who do not benefit from 6 hours a day, 5 days a week language instruction like they do. Instead, the child spends time building up his/her skills in another language, exercising his/her brain synapses, improving many skills: multitasking, listening, speaking, etc.

The sad thing is many new immigrant parents insist on not speaking Spanish with their children, fearing that their children will not learn English. This is patently untrue and a bit disheartening. Every time a child loses the ability to communicate with relatives in their native language, it’s a loss. They can no longer hear the oral histories, listen to their relatives in their comfortable language. This is upsetting to me. However, I understand their motivation, as many English speakers here in the U.S. insist on the superiority of the English language. While I understand that immigrants should learn English, I don’t think anyone comes to the U.S. without that intention – it’s life circumstances that get in the way (work, exhaustion, third shift, etc.). One student recently commented this his mother didn’t go to free English classes because she couldn’t drive there (no license) and, um, I doubt she was going to walk upwards of 8 miles round trip when she has a family to look after.

I wish we could reach some middle ground where English was important, but not the be-all, end-all. I wish the kids I work with would learn both languages – reading, writing, speaking, and listening. I wish they would get the opportunity to hear their grandparents speak of their home countries in Spanish. I wish they would grow up loving both, understanding both, living both.

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7 comments

  1. I have one tiny disagreement with your post. I know a lot of kids from immigrant families who don’t actually speak their heritage language yet understand most, if not all, of what family members say. So they can still listen to those stories and in some way communicate with relatives. You also have various degrees of fluency in the heritage language (see: Mexican American kids called “pochos” because they speak Spanglish and/or grammatically incorrect Spanish). I see this in my own immediate family where I’m much more fluent than my siblings who are just a few years younger. I do think both languages should be equally valued and more parents should learn about the cognitive and social benefits of being bilingual. I grew up speaking both languages at home, especially with my Spanish-only grandparents. However, my Spanish skills would be much weaker grammatically, and I’d have a much smaller vocabulary if I hadn’t taken classes in high school and college. The people I knew who only spoke Spanish at home are SO much stronger and more confident in their abilities. (They also spent more time visiting family in Mexico growing up.)

  2. Interesting. I sort of get that, too. One student said he doesn’t reallly understand that much Spanish, at least compared to other Spanish-speaking students. But that is good to know! It’s intriguing how one can understand a language, yet not speak it.

    Most of my students speak grammatically incorrect Spanish, especially my little ones. They say things like “poniera” because they are not being taught “proper” Spanish, just proper English. I definitely see how Spanish classes could benefit a native speaker. I know several of my students do or will take high school Spanish, just to learn how to read and write better.

    I mainly speak to the elementary school teachers who seem to undervalue Spanish and think all families should just switch to English because “they’re in America now.” I really don’t like that.

  3. Love this post. I feel like in America there is SUCH an English-centric outlook on everything. As a whole, Americans tolerate differences and other cultures, but they’re not accepted or valued as much as they should be. For a country that prides itself on being a “melting pot” or “mixed salad” or whatever the politically correct term is these days, we should be more encouraging of linguistic diversity.

    Also OBSESSED with that cartoon. My old intercambio told me some joke once and the punch-line was “mother foca” but I can’t remember the rest of the joke now. Fail.

  4. This issue is also more and more important as the economy becomes more global. If an immigrant kid can maintain both citizenships and learn both languages well, then there are two potential job markets available.

    I once knew a girl who spent her first six years in France before moving to Turkey. She could understand and speak French perfectly, but she had no clue how to read or write it.

  5. Just saw this on The Facebook and had to share, since it’s so relevant here:

    An Amish farmer is walking through his field when he sees a guy drinking from his pond, scooping it up with his hand. The farmer says, “Trinken sie nicht das wasser, die kuhe unddie schweine haben in ihm geschissen,” which means, ‘Don’t drink the water, the cows and the pigs shit in it.’ The guy shouts back, “I’m a Teabagger, and this is America. I don’t understand your gibberish. Speak English, you moron.” The farmer says, “Use two hands, you’ll get more.” ~Dave Birkey

  6. My ex’s father was Mexican; my ex’s half-brother, who was 15 years younger than my ex, was brought up bilingual in both Spanish and English. (My ex liked to think he could speak Spanish but I think he was faking it; that’s a whole other story!) It was difficult to have conversations with the half-brother when he was very young because he didn’t know the difference between Spanish and English and would switch between the two when talking to you without even realizing it! I was absolutely in awe – and so jealous!

  7. Great post! I actually work at a dual-language school, where students are instructed in both English & Spanish. They start in the program at age 3, and by 3rd grade, they get half of their instruction in Spanish & half in English. I really value this model because it shows Hispanic kids that their native language has value beyond using it to communicate with their parents/older relatives. They learn that it is important to read, write, and speak in their first and second languages. Not to mention that language development is very stimulating for the brain.

    This also means we have kids at my school who are learning Spanish as a second language. I am so jealous! I didn’t start learning Spanish until I was in 9th grade, and I am in no way remotely fluent! I regularly tell the Spanish as a 2nd language learners just how lucky they are.

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