Tuesday, October 14, 2014

This blog is now a collaborative effort between Marie Nubia-Feliciano and I, Cristina G. Versteegh. Marie Nubia is an Adjunct Faculty and Ph. D Candidate at Chapman University, a friend, a mom of trilingual kids, and an advocate of language and heritage. Together, and every month, we'll discuss topics abut language, education, curriculum, policies, and such. Stay tuned!

"Giving a child a new language is the greatest gift you can give him, because it will change their life forever.” 
Paula Bendfeldt-Dias.

Marie Nubia-Feliciano: For me, language is a medium for understanding my own personal experiences, and my choice to raise my children to be trilingual (English, Spanish, and Dutch). When I first came from Puerto Rico, I only spoke Spanish and it took me four years to become bilingual. This seems like a long time, which it is, but I hesitated practicing my English because the school environment was not very friendly to non-English speakers. From this experience, I realized that I needed to make sure my children were literate in more than one language from the very beginning. The future they will inherit is uncertain, but one certainty is that it will be a world that requires an understanding of, and sensitivity to, more than one language and culture. The ability to understand at the deepest human level people from other cultures gives you access to another lens through which to understand your world. It fosters in you sensitivity for the difficulties of learning another language. In the United States, where second language learning is seen as something you do if you have time or money, there is a lack of understanding of how difficult it is to learn another language. English is a language that our children must become proficient in to some extent. But learning another language brings them beyond proficient. Knowing more than one language helps keep your brain healthy and your consciousness attuned to the rhythms of the human experience. In my humble opinion, this is vital in order to be engaged global citizens. At the very least it will help you ask where the bathroom is.
Children especially are in a perfect position to acquire language with little resistance. Knowing more than one language is considered by many the literacy of the 21st century. It allows us to connect at a deep level with many more people around the world. This ability to connect across boundaries, this ability to relate to people on their own terms, is the greatest gift that humanity can give itself. It provides a means with which to resolve conflict, come to compromises, develop compassion, and encourage innovation. Helping a child to learn more than one language not only benefits the child, but benefits the world.

Cristina Garcia-Versteegh: Unarguably, all of us have been given the skill to communicate. Whether we use words, actions, pictures, or facial gestures, those are things innate to us and determined by our upbringing. That is what is known as our first language or our mother tongue. Mother tongue is the language learned first and is the language in which we establish our first long-lasting verbal and even non-verbal contacts. Some people are very lucky to be born in geographically diverse environments (not me) therefore, they grow to be equally fluent in 2 or more languages (not me either). They need the languages to be perfectly functional in whatever environment they happen to be. The languages they learn can be main languages or local languages (dialects), however, what really matters is not the language being spoken, although it's important, but rather what goes on in the mind of the person that is able to interact in 2 or more languages. Truly, the minds of bilinguals and trilinguals are worked twice or three times as much, as they are constantly code-switching, assessing situations, adjusting themselves to new environments, filtering distracting situations as I learned from Marie, solving problems, interpreting in different ways, and more. This all provides for a very flexible, capable mind.

I had the fortune to be born in a great country with great people, great food, and coffee, but the misfortune to only acquire the only language everybody spoke: Spanish. I didn't lack anything, but didn’t have extra things either like music, dance, or language classes. I didn’t have access to things that were not already offered in my school. I read a lot though (a value my dad passed down to me) and came across books written in a language I didn’t understand at all. This aroused my curiosity. Then I thought: “What is it? Is it possible that not everybody in the world speaks my language? When I travel the world, how am I going to communicate with somebody if I don’t know their language?” It was a devastating moment for me. Learning another language became my obsession and did all I could to self-teach it. It wasn’t easy, still it isn’t easy! I can’t get over the fact that I’ll never sound like a native English or French speaker (which I started learning in College) and that I won’t get the cultural things (jokes, slang, idiosyncrasies)  as easily as a native speaker. I just won’t. Why? Simple: because it wasn’t my mother tongue, and because I wasn’t fortunate enough to acquire it during the “crucial years” (from birth to about 8 years old).

I could finally come to terms with this crude reality of mine, doing the only thing I could do. I turned to my son and I gave him not only 1 language, but two (and a half technically) and he does better than me. I am proud of that! He, from a very young age, has been a bridge between cultures decoding the world everywhere he goes, associating things, crashing language and racial barriers, and solving problems. He is doing big things as well as little things with his ability. Little things like mathematical operations in a split second in two languages. This blows my mind because I can’t multiply or divide in English to save my life. I irremediably fall back on my first language. My gift and my legacy to my son are profound love and respect for other languages and cultures. The best is, it doesn’t cost anything because I just do it by speaking with him. I know he’ll do great things with his language ability and will continue learning. He will influence and connect with other people, be compassionate toward their needs because he understands them, and in that way, change his life and the world wherever he goes one step at a time.


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