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Two Tongues Are Better Than One

by Ailen Arreaza

December 9,2010

For my husband and me, our 16-month-old son, Lucas, is the first member from both of our immediate families to be born in the United States. He’s already got a shiny blue passport that allows him to travel to most countries in the world without the need for a visa. He will grow up celebrating Thanksgiving and playing American football with his friends. He even meets the first requirement to run for president. And yet I am doing everything in my power to make sure that English is not his first language.

I want my son to be bilingual and, in my experience, the best way to achieve that is by only speaking Spanish at home.

My family immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba when I was nine years old, and although I am thankful for the incredible sacrifices my parents made to give me and my brother the same opportunities as American-born children, the one thing for which I am the most grateful is their never-ending efforts to make sure we did not forget how to speak our native tongue.

As a child, I learned English quickly. In about six months of practice, I was writing book reports for my fifth grade class and laughing at all the jokes on The Cosby Show. I spoke English at school and with the neighborhood kids, but was forbidden from doing so at home. Our house was a Spanish-only zone and my mother went to great lengths to ensure that I not only spoke it perfectly, but could also read and write it fluently.

Today, being bilingual is one of my most marketable skills – not only in professional situations, but in academic and social scenarios as well. Just ask my monolingual friends about that one time we almost got ripped off by a cab driver while vacationing in Mexico.

This experience is why it is so disheartening for me to hear that, in the most recent election, 75% of the electorate in Oklahoma voted in favor of a constitutional amendment mandating that all “official state action” be conducted in English. The United States falls way behind most industrialized nations when it comes to its number of bilingual citizens, yet instead of focusing on improving that statistic, we make laws that limit foreign speech.

Proponents of the Oklahoma and other similar laws say that these types of mandates encourage immigrants to learn English and promote unity. But how can banning the native tongues of millions of citizens promote anything but dissent and hostility? The message these types of policies send to the community is one of intolerance. It’s a message that undermines the contributions of people from other cultures – contributions that have always been the cornerstone of American ideals.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe that all immigrants to the U.S. should learn to speak English, and I think that the government should put programs in place that make it easier for them to do so – programs that encourage the learning of languages instead of sanctioning them. But I also believe that our country needs to improve its rank in the world when it comes to multilingualism and that laws like the one passed in Oklahoma only make matters worse.

For my part, I will continue speaking Spanish exclusively with my son. Just like I did, Lucas will pick up English quickly at preschool and from watching Yo Gabba Gabba!, and just like my mother, I will take on the responsibility of providing him with an environment where he is exposed to a foreign language.

He will grow up bilingual. When he takes his SATs, he’ll use his knowledge of Spanish to figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar vocabulary word. He’ll receive a perfect score and get accepted into an Ivy League university. He’ll excel there – in great part due to the enhanced cognitive skills speaking a second language has afforded him – and eventually run a successful campaign for the presidency. As President, he will be known for creating policies that prepare Americans to better compete with the rest of the world, and will veto every “English only” bill that makes its way to his desk.

Okay, so maybe all that is a bit of a stretch… but at least he’ll know when he’s getting ripped off by a foreign cabbie!

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