The Importance of being bilingual.

Mother and I pose for a photo before we leave Cuba.

          When I was a 15-year old going through my awkward teens, I desperately wanted to be an American. I had gone through the horrors of living in Jim Crow Oklahoma when I first came to the U.S. as a seven-year old, and I didn’t want to remember anything about my childhood in Cuba, Panama and Mexico.

I no longer saw myself as a Cuban, especially when I was ridiculed as a “Yankee” by another snotty teen-age girl when I visited the island in 1956.

I came knowing no English but I learned the language at the point of my mother’s authoritarian rules in a period of six months. Dr. Consuelo Gutierrez looked feminine and girlish at first glance, but she had a rod of steel for a spine when it came to teaching languages.

Mother had a Ph.D. in philosophy and the Romance languages. She was devoted to the ‘immersion’ method of learning languages, a discipline that, according to her, tends to rapidly make the student master conversational abilities in the second language.

Mother had taught Spanish to members of both the Chinese and Polish embassies in Cuba in the 40s. Immersion was the key to their success, she said, even though Chinese and Polish were linguistically quite different from Spanish.

My parents agreed to a divorce in 1943. But when mother got a teaching contract in Panama, and wanted to take me with her, Papi would only allow it under one stipulation. I had to write him a letter every week in Spanish so I would not forget the language.

So I was stuck between these two obstinate individuals. One would deny me food unless I asked for it in English, and the other wanted a letter in Spanish every week.

I learned to read English by making my dictionary my best friend. The second best friend was the local library in Chickasha, Oklahoma where I devoured any children’s books, especially those about the American revolutionary war.

By the time I grew of age in the Fifties and Sixties, I was totally immersed in the American culture. I made my living as a journalist, and it wasn’t until the early 80s that I began to appreciate the blessings of being bilingual and bicultural.

My father had spent years as a political prisoner in Cuba, and my half-brother and sister came to live in the United States. I wanted to communicate with them and to appreciate their experiences; as a result I had to speak and write Spanish more frequently.

My career blossomed because I could write Spanish-language copy; this gift allowed me to do business in all parts of the world, to immerse myself in the culture of my ancestors, and to meet people from other cultures.

Physiological studies have found that speaking two or more languages is a great asset to the cognitive process. I think this is true. You become more capable of multitasking, smarter, your memory improves, you become more perceptive, you can make more rational decisions and, if a senior citizen, you stave off Alzheimer’s and dementia.

As a mature adult, I listen to the arguments about “English Only” and shake my head. Your German grandmamma may not have taught you German when you were young because she lived in a much narrower world. But you live in a global society. You can go anywhere on planet Earth. Why would you limit yourself to knowing only your own language and none other?

Parents, in my opinion, need to teach their children about their ancestry, whether it’s Mexico, Russia or Armenia. Kids will benefit from being able to speak the language of their ancestors, and will gain a broader, global perspective about their lives and how they inter-connect with others. We’re at the beginning of the 21st Century, facing possible extinction as a species. This is not the time to get parochial about ourselves and our little corner of the world.

Thankfully, my two daughters speak Spanish. One teaches ESL kids, and the other added Mandarin and American Sign Language to her repertoire.

I’m sure Grandma Consuelo is smiling from heaven:  “Another two linguists in the family – all is good.”  

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