If Only We All Spoke Two Languages
By Ariel Dorfman
Published: June 24, 1998
DURHAM, N.C.— Ever since I came to settle in the United States 18 years ago, I have hoped that this nation might someday become truly multilingual, with everyone here speaking at least two languages.
I am aware, of course, that my dream is not shared by most Americans: if the outcome of California’s referendum on bilingual education earlier this month is any indication, the nation will continue to stubbornly prefer a monolingual country. California voters rejected the bilingual approach — teaching subjects like math and science in the student’s native language and gradually introducing English. Instead, they approved what is known as the immersion method, which would give youngsters a year of intensive English, then put them in regular classrooms.
The referendum was ostensibly about education, but the deeper and perhaps subconscious choice was about the future of America. Will this country speak two languages or merely one?
The bilingual method, in spite of what its detractors claim, does not imprison a child in his or her original language. Rather, it keeps it alive in order to build bridges to English. The immersion method, on the other hand, wants youngsters to cut their ties to the syllables of their past culture.
Both methods can work. I should know. I have endured them both. But my experience was unquestionably better with bilingual education.
I first suffered the immersion method in 1945 when I was 2 1/2 years old. My family had recently moved to New York from my native Argentina, and when I caught pneumonia, I was interned in the isolation ward of a Manhattan hospital. I emerged three weeks later, in shock from having the doctors and nurses speak to me only in English, and didn’t utter another word in Spanish for 10 years.
That experience turned me into a savagely monolingual child, a xenophobic all-American kid, desperate to differentiate himself from Ricky Ricardo and Chiquita Banana. But when my family moved to Chile in 1954, I could not continue to deny my heritage. I learned Spanish again in a British school in Santiago that used the gradualist method. Thus I became a bilingual adolescent.
Later, during the ideologically charged 1960’s, I foolishly willed myself to become monolingual again, branding English as the language of an imperial power out to subjugate Latin America. I swore never to speak or write in English again. The 1973 military coup in Chile against the democratically elected Government of Salvador Allende Gossens sent me into exile — and back into the arms of English, making me into this hybrid creature who now uses both languages and writes a memoir in English and a play in Spanish as if it were the most ordinary thing to do.
I have developed a linguistic ambidexterity that I will be the first to admit is not at all typical. Even so, it is within reach of others if they start early enough, this thrilling experience of being dual, of taking from one linguistic river and then dipping into the other, until the confluence of the two vocabularies connects distant communities. This is an experience I wish all Americans could share.
Or maybe I would be satisfied if voters in this country could understand that by introducing children from other lands to the wonders of English while leaving all the variety and marvels of their native languages intact, the American experience and idiom are fertilized and fortified.
If people could realize that immigrant children are better off, and less scarred, by holding on to their first languages as they learn a second one, then perhaps Americans could accept a more drastic change. What if every English-speaking toddler were to start learning a foreign language at an early age, maybe in kindergarten? What if these children were to learn Spanish, for instance, the language already spoken by millions of American citizens, but also by so many neighbors to the South?
Most Americans would respond by asking why it is necessary at all to learn another language, given that the rest of the planet is rapidly turning English into the lingua franca of our time. Isn’t it easier, most Americans would say, to have others speak to us in our words and with our grammar? Let them make the mistakes and miss the nuances and subtleties while we occupy the more powerful and secure linguistic ground in any exchange.
But that is a shortsighted strategy. If America doesn’t change, it will find itself, let’s say in a few hundred years, to be a monolingual nation in a world that has become gloriously multilingual. It will discover that acquiring a second language not only gives people an economic and political edge, but is also the best way to understand someone else’s culture, the most stimulating way to open your life and transform yourself into a more complete member of the species.
No tengan miedo. Don’t be afraid.
Your children won’t be losing Shakespeare. They’ll just be gaining Cervantes.
Ariel Dorfman, a professor of literature and Latin American studies at Duke University, is the author, most recently, of ”Heading South, Looking North: A Bilingual Journey.
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