A young editor at a Spanish-language magazine where I used to work was fluent in several languages. She had a German father and Swedish mother, and she spoke both their languages with native ease. She spoke English like any young American. She was fluent in French. And, the reason why we hired her, she spoke perfect Spanish, with the relaxed Caribbean accent of Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, peoples whose music and lifestyle she was enthusiastic about.
I’ve been thinking about her fluency now that California considers banning bilingual education. I will grant that this multilingual young editor was unusually bright, yet I have known many young people whose grasp of at least two languages was as relaxed as her command of several. Why should languages be a playing field to some and a battleground to others?
The key words in my account of how some people manage to master more than their native tongue are ”enthusiastic” and ”relaxed.” I studied English as a foreign language in school. But where I really learned it, before migrating to the United States, was watching American movies and reading American comic books. In other words, I learned it having fun. That semester abroad
When I was a teacher of Spanish I would encounter a language-learning phenomenon time and again. Student X would complete three years of Spanish, which meant a basic knowledge of grammar, some reading skills, an ability to understand speech, but a very rudimentary fluency. Then Student X would take a semester abroad program in Spain, Mexico or wherever. And Student X would return speaking fluently and naturally.
Good study abroad program? Not all students who took it profited from it as much as Student X. Ah, but then one day Student X would come to my office and spill the beans. Love. Sweet love. Sometimes the bitterness of separation. Other times, the gladness of knowing they were going to meet again soon, hopefully forever.
I don’t need to tell you exactly where Student X learned Spanish so well; it sure wasn’t in the classroom of our study abroad program. It figures. Research shows that children are most receptive to a learning experience while sitting on their mother’s lap, thus the advantages of reading to your kids at home. Well, there are other situations where that receptiveness is duplicated. Obviously, a study abroad program would get in serious trouble if it tried to institutionalize that methodology, but romance and hormones take care of that. Breaking the stalemate
Foreign languages are a playing field when there is curiosity, attraction, love even. Thus my young colleague spinning herself into Spanish-language fluency at salsa clubs, my soaking up all the vernacular English movies and comics had to offer, and Student X drinking from the fountain of a beloved’s speech.
Foreign languages are a battleground when the people who speak the languages are at war. Anglos and Hispanics _ which means English- and Spanish-speaking peoples _ have been either at war or suspiciously hostile to one another since at least the days when Philip II and Elizabeth I had their maritime fight. Today Anglos charge that Hispanics use bilingual education not to help kids do well in school but for political reasons, while Hispanics charge that Anglos oppose it for political reasons, as well. To some extent, they are both right.
Is there a way out of that stalemate? Can I declare in a poetic fit, like Allen Ginsberg did in the Vietnam era, that the war is over? Dare I suggest that we make love not war? This much I know: If you want to learn another language, there’s no better way.
Enrique Fernandez’s column appears Monday in Lifestyle and Sunday in Sunshine.