Bilingualism done right

I met a charming family today and I want to share what little I know about them. I sense they are plotting a bright future for their children.

Mom and Dad are immigrants from Mexico. They moved to the Oklahoma Panhandle about eight years ago. They have two daughters, one 3 years of age; the other girl is an infant. I spoke freely with Mom and Dad and as I spoke to the little girl, Mom informed me she speaks very little English.

“We speak Spanish at home,” Mom said, adding that the 3-year-old “understands” English quite well, but she just doesn’t speak it much. No need, apparently, given her age and the apparently limited exposure she has to other children.

No sweat, I thought. She’ll get that exposure in due course.

I thought briefly for a moment about my own parents. They were children of immigrants, too. Neither of them spoke English at home prior to enrolling in public school; Mom grew up in Portland, Ore., Dad in New Kensington, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh. All four of my grandparents were Greeks through and through. They spoke their native language at home, period. Dad’s parents brought seven children into the world and all of them were and are as fluent in Greek as they are in English. Same for Mom and her two brothers. All of my grandparents became U.S. citizens and all were devoted patriots who loved their adopted homeland. My maternal grandmother was especially proud, as she once declared she had no interest in returning to the place of her birth. “Why should I?” she asked. “America is my home.”

Both of my parents learned English the old-fashioned “total immersion” way. They were thrust into environments where English was mandatory. You spoke it or else. You learned it or you didn’t succeed. “English as a Second Language” classes didn’t exist in the late 1920s.

They do now.

My hope for the children of the folks I met today? I hope Mom and Dad throw them into the proverbial language “water” when they’re old enough for school. Total immersion learning isn’t harmful to children, who learn to adapt quickly. My own parents — and millions of others in their generation — were perfect examples of how that system of language-learning works.

I’m glad for this couple I met today that they speak their native tongue at home. It’s good that the children will be bilingual and will grow up in a society that should encourage more children to speak more than one language.

They’re headed for successful lives.

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