This week we had our daughter’s parent-teacher conference and her 2nd grade teacher reminded us that some instruction in English has been introduced. Yes, you read me right. She’s just beginning English grammar, reading and writing, and yes, we do live in the States again. But we live in a colorful university town full of educational offerings including the option to send her to a Spanish Immersion program through the public school district. Established more than 25 years ago and considered the”mother ship” of Spanish Immersion in this area, her elementary school follows the Canadian/French model of (initial) 100 percent language immersion. That means for the last three years, there has been zero, zilch, nada English spoken in her classroom, and districtwide school curriculum has been taught entirely in Spanish.
Many parents in our community take advantage of the program, while others send their kids to the neighborhood school, independent study or Montessori options our town offers. Other than the extra driving across town, sending her to language immersion was an easy choice for us. I grew up in a bilingual household with a German immigrant mom and a Mexican-American dad. For me and my sister, this was our life – we spoke English to mom, Spanish to dad. (And, strangely, at dinner we prayed in German.) I don’t think I knew my dad could speak English until I was well into grade school and speaking it to him later in life felt as comfortable as fingernails scratching a chalkboard.
Because my husband and I don’t raise our kids in a bilingual household like I grew up in, I like the idea that Michela is immersed in Spanish at school six hours a day, five days a week. I wouldn’t care if it were German, Chinese or Swahili, I like that she’s practicing expressing herself in a different way. And being bilingual at an early age has proven positive effects on the brain. It helps to grow new connections between neurons that aid speech, and studies now indicate that early bilinguals have better cognitive control in certain types of non-verbal tasks and bilingualism seems to protect heathy older adults from some of the negative effects of aging on the brain.
While abroad, I envied Europeans shifting languages as gracefully as the gears in their cars, and attributed it to their early study of language and advantage of geography. Growing up in California we weren’t required to take a second language until high school, when many took Spanish primarily to help them succeed through Spring Break drink ordering in Rosarito Beach.
But learning a foreign language is a wonderful thing and, like many things in life, I didn’t appreciate the gift of growing up bilingual until I was older. It’s empowering. When you travel it’s like having a golden ticket that allows you entrance into a culture where a visiting tourist can’t go – let alone more respect at restaurants. Speaking foreign languages is also fun. When I speak Italian, I use tone variations and pronounce e-ver-y syllable, use my hands a lot and seem to feel very passionate about what I’m saying. But as I learned living abroad, it’s also humbling, exhausting and requires courage. The aluminum foil I was given when I asked for film for my camera. The dinner party jokes I missed out on. The 10 euro cantaloupe I bought. My husband announcing to his friends he was about to become the pope instead of a dad. My calling the pope a potato. And now, when volunteering in my daughter’s class, the Italian spills out accidentally but perfectly, threatening the Spanish I’ve known all my life and now find difficulty speaking. If only I spoke like this in Italy. What a cruel joke.
While I don’t think I possess a gift for languages like my husband does, I do believe that being bilingual helped me acquire a third language later in life (more coming in future posts on studying languages abroad). The other day for homework, Michela needed to write a sentence about a book she was reading on the Spanish plaza. “In Italian the word plaza is piazza” she began writing in Spanish. Maybe she, too, will be in that piazza someday, chatting it up in her birth country’s language, without hesitation or a misplaced verb conjugation, golden ticket tucked in her back pocket.