Me. At Work. Latino non-profit. Fabulous.
Am I Really Bilingual?
I think this is an open letter to parents raising bilingual, Spanish-speaking children in America. For parents, like me, whose kids are speaking and reading English at school and hablando un poco de español at home.
I have had a realization. A thunderbolt to the cabeza. A “guau” moment about my own bilingualism and what it may mean for my daughter’s ability to claim the adjective “bilingual.” What it may mean to yours, too.
Are we fooling ourselves that we’re raising truly bilingual kids? Are we, of the Spanglish-speaking generation, truly bilingual?
You see, back in January, I stepped out of my work-at-home-mama chancletas and yoga pants and began to work for a local Latino non-profit. I’ll tell you more about it at some point, but what is relevant here is that I am called upon to write in Spanish. And, I have worried and stumbled.
I can’t remember the accents and the words that flow so easily from me in English sputter out of my head in fits and stalls in Spanish. I worry my words are wrong, maybe they’re Miami cubanisms and not really terms native Spanish-speakers would use? I worry. Thank goodness for great editors and kind proof readers.
Oh, and I won’t even spend much time telling you how I forget words as I am speaking to native Spanish-speakers. Thank goodness for Spanglish, but there’s work to be done in that area for me, too.
I really, really should have paid more attention in Mrs. Arrastia’s class. But anyway.
The Key May Be To Read Spanish Literature
So, the lightbulb moment was this: My written Spanish is that of someone who didn’t read great literature in Spanish, didn’t read the morning newspaper in Spanish. I didn’t read beautiful, descriptive scenes in novels, nor the colorful and dramatic words of journalists.
You see, I can understand most of what I read in Spanish, but I believe the lack of regular and in-depth reading in Spanish has deprived the poetic, lyrical side of my brain from creating its own Spanish dance of words.
My written Spanish is simple. Juvenile. (This despite speaking it all my life and studying the basics all the way to college.)
Que pena, really.
I told my boss about this idea of mine, and she — once a journalism student who was born and raised in Central America — thinks I am onto something. She attended college in the U.S., so she had to read in English, and given that she works and lives here, she has had to immerse herself in the written English language. Her ability to write beautifully and powerfully in two languages is there, for sure. If my theory holds, it is because she has read a lot of English.
So, I am a bilingual woman who cannot claim to write as well in Spanish as she does in English. And honestly, that reality is a blow to my self-identity.
How can I be truly bilingual, if writing in Spanish is a chore? Or, it leaves me — a writer by profession — feeling insecure?
I looked over at Maria the other day as she and I were snuggled in bed reading. She had The Swiss Family Robinson. I had the latest Bon Appetit magazine.
How can I help her have a firmer grip on the beautiful language she understands, but only sort-of-speaks? Will she, in her high school and college years, read Spanish literature? Will it be too late then to ignite a spark, or create real bilingual brain paths, by then?
And how can I help myself — at nearly 45! — expand my brain and achieve greater literacy in Spanish?
Maybe my daughter and I will read Spanish novels together. It will be a thing we can share. Maybe one day, she and I will head to Mexico or Costa Rica or Uruguay and go hang out to immerse ourselves in words, spoken and written.
But, for now, I have promised myself to read en español regularly. So, waiting for me on my Kindle tonight is Ficciones by Jose Luis Borges.
It isn’t an easy read, I understand. But, I want to start with great. If its hard, I’ll move down to the tween literature and go from there.
Vamos a ver.
I have to tell you, I am feeling a little jipped.
What about You?
So, what does this mean for so many of our children, growing up American with barely a toe in Latin culture? With minimal Spanish at home? With basic Spanish at school, if they’re lucky.
If you’re in my boat, raising bicultural kids, what are you doing to ensure their language ability is both spoken and written?
I’d love to know.