We never questioned whether or not we would raise our children to be bilingual while living in the United States.
My husband is from Ecuador and I am from Texas. If I could help my children speak Spanish without my Texas twang (I speak Spanish with a heavy Texan accent), I would do so. When my first son was born, my husband spoke only Spanish to both of us. I spoke English to everyone, because frankly as a sleep-deprived mother, I was lucky if I could spit out a complete sentence in my native tongue. In order to further instill Spanish in an English dominant society, we also placed our children in a Spanish immersion preschool. Thus, my children’s bilingualism wasn’t an issue for us. In the rest of the country, however, dual language and multi-lingualism aren’t without controversy.
Our current place of residence, Texas, has a particularly complex and dark history with speakers of foreign languages. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, most schools punished students for speaking any language but English. As a result, many non-native English speakers taught their children to speak English in order to save them from the horrible maltreatment they faced while in school. Other immigrant parents emphasized English as a way to demonstrate their loyalty to their chosen country. While attitudes toward bilingualism and multi-lingualism have changed, remnants of the discrimination against non-native English speakers remain in our country. My neighbor, who ironically has a sign written in German on his back fence, also has a bumper sticker that says, “Welcome to America. Now either speak English or leave.”
In 2005, a Kansas school suspended a 16-year-old boy for speaking Spanish in the hall between classes (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/08/AR2005120802122.html). In Hempstead, Tx., a principal announced over the intercom that students were now banned from speaking Spanish in school (http://www.texasobserver.org/hempstead-habla-espanol/).
Fortunately, this type of xenophobia, while still present, is no longer the rule. In fact, a number of cities in Texas and around the country have instituted dual language schools. In Austin alone, we have dual language schools pairing English with Spanish, Vietnamese and Mandarin. Many English-only speaking parents transfer their children into these schools as a way to secure their children’s fluency in a foreign language. Still, opinions abound on the best way to educate our multi-lingual society.
In our own immediate family, we have received mostly support over our decision to raise our children in a bilingual household. A few people have wondered if the two different languages would confuse our children. Fortunately, a lot of research demonstrates the benefits of knowing more than one language. Studies show a marked improvement in cognitive abilities, situational awareness and, later in life, a delayed onset of dementia in bilingual individuals (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-benefits-of-bilingualism.html?_r=0).
I hope that my children will benefit cognitively from their language skills, and I am also glad that they will have the ability to travel to another region of the world and speak to the people like a native speaker.
In my opinion, the greatest advantage we have given our children is to bridge some of the gaps between foreign and native populations and to reduce their likelihood of viewing people as the “other.” After all, language is communication and to be able to understand another population reduces our isolation from that population. In testament to this fact, Israel has a few public schools that teach in both Hebrew and Arabic languages (http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/04/in-some-israeli-schools-its-arabic-in-first-period-and-hebrew-in-second/275300/). Students in these schools not only benefit from the educational advantages of bilingualism, they also become more accepting of other cultures as well. I also hope that my children become more open-minded and compassionate through their bilingualism. The only thing I worry about their bilingualism in an English dominant society is that they will lose it.