As I write this, my four-month-old son is practicing his vocal cords. He is learning how to create sounds, and he is excited. He is currently putting together sounds like “agoo” and “ahhaaa” into what will one day form words and speech patterns. As a family, we are excited to hear his first word, and as his mother, I want it to be “mama.” Once the first word is out, the rest gets more complicated.
As a family, we are making an effort to speak mostly in Spanish to him. He is part of the second generation born in the United States, and we have already noticed a pattern with all his older cousins. None of them speak Spanish. There are various reasons for this, but mostly it was just too hard to teach them what their parents struggled to speak themselves.
I grew up in a Spanish speaking household, and Spanish was my first language. However, even though I grew up listening to Spanish in our home I didn’t interact with it as much in school. My sisters and I would speak English to each other, and since my parents were trying to master the English language, we would speak English to them. Of course, it would get frustrating at times trying to get our point across so sometimes a few Spanish words got into the mix. I took Spanish for Spanish speakers in high school and struggled tremendously in the class. I could not comprehend the “acento” rules! Ugh. Even now I couldn’t tell you were the “acento” falls on a Spanish word even though I took two years in high school and the Advanced Placement test. My parents would often warn us of the importance of mastering both Spanish and English in the workforce, but it just didn’t seem like it was something that I would be able to do. Our Spanish had become the “pocho” Spanish, mostly speaking English with a few Spanish words intermixed. “Pocho” Spanish is often stigmatized and ridiculed by native Spanish speakers. It can become intimidating and push you to not even want to put into practice the little that you do know. This also causes a disassociation with the culture as you are cut off from the older Spanish speaking adults.
Now that the next generation has arrived, the adults understand how important speaking in two languages really is. We failed as a family to make Spanish a priority for the older children. It was just easier for us to interact with them in the language that was most familiar to them. It was clear that English was favored over Spanish because their friends spoke English at school. They associated English with the preferred language and Spanish as the language of the adults. Also, the adults didn’t want to get home from work and try to explain things in Spanish or try to grab the children’s attention in a language that they didn’t want to interact with.
One program that could have been of great value for my family is dual immersion language programs at school. Four years ago, when one of my nephews was of school age, we considered the programs available. Unfortunately, at the time there were few programs that were close enough in location. Also, the most desirable of those programs were part of smaller charter schools, and parents were camping out to get on the lottery list so their children could attend. Although the school excelled in the area of language, it didn’t have the art program that we were also looking for. It was disappointing because we really wanted our nephew to learn Spanish, but it was determined that due to location, programs available, and overall convenience that a local school that centered on the arts was a better fit.
Currently, I am looking into schools for my four-year-old step son and looking into the future for my infant son. The problem again becomes what our priorities are in regards to getting them to the schools that will not only prioritize language but will emphasize other programs as well. For instance, I am currently in the search of a dual language program that emphasizes a STEM curriculum. Although there are over 20 dual language programs in our city, the top two rated elementary schools in STEM do not have a dual language immersion program. This puts the adults in the family at a crossroads in trying to decide which of the skills will be the most beneficial to our kids. Different people have different opinions; some think that language can always be learned as an elective later in school. Yet other people believe speaking in Spanish is an essential skill in the job marketplace and will limit our kids if they don’t master the two languages.
It is so important at a young age to expose children to language, the sciences, the arts, and social justice programs. I wish there were more programs available that held all of these to an equal value. Currently, it seems that no matter which route we take in helping our children achieve their best, it will require us as a family to be very intentional in our approach to their education.
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