Bilingual skills expand ability to communicate

What do we mean when we use the term “bilingual”? Many consider it synonymous with bilingual programs in our school systems. Others politically associate it with Latino immigrants and language acquisition issues. To me, it means much more.

One of my daughters is studying French in Belgium as an exchange student. My other daughter is enrolled at the University of Alaska studying to become a sign-language interpreter. My wife is a business coach and has studied body language as a method to uncover nonverbal messages. I speak both English and Spanish and can interpret most gang graffiti and hand signs from my years as a gang interventionist. Our family, and yours, communicates in a rainbow of languages. In other words, most of us are bilingual.

I am not trying to make light of the controversy surrounding bilingualism here in the United States. However, I feel that many times it is used as a political tool instead of a means to better communicate with each other, a process that requires us to move beyond nouns and vowels.

In the United States, there is no hotter topic in the Latino community than bilingualism in our schools. Many swear by its necessity. Others feel it is a system in dire need of reform, and still others want to abolish it altogether. Yet, if one were to review the classes taken by Anglo students in high schools, many are taking Spanish as a second language. Most universities require foreign language course for admission. Should this large body of students not also be included in the subject of bilingualism?

There are those who feel the United States should be an “English Only” country in which no other language is utilized except the one the pilgrims brought with them. They obviously are not referring to the language of America’s discoverer, for he was Italian, sailing a Spanish fleet, with Portuguese sailors.

Let’s see, how would the landscape change if English were the only language accepted in the United States? First, we would have to change the name of many of our largest cities, such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. We’d have to find something else to eat during football games other than Doritos and salsa. Forget about a pot of chili with jalepeno peppers and a margarita with tequila. I realize that this may sound a little cynical – and maybe it is, but this is a country founded by immigrants who spoke many varied languages.

This is the United States, and I believe everyone who becomes a citizen of this country should learn the common language spoken here. English happens to be that language, but that should not mean immigrants with a proud heritage should bury the expressiveness that varied languages offer. In Alaska, the natives have more than a dozen names for snow depending on its consistency and texture. The Indians whom Columbus encountered had a comprehensive sign language so as to communicate with different tribes.

The world is moving toward a global economy. Many American corporations now have plants south of the border and around the world. Knowing only English as the sole basis of communicating will not only hinder progress but place this country in jeopardy of losing its justified title as a world leader. The ability to communicate in two languages expands one’s ability to convey a wealth of information.

Much like drawing a rainbow with a 64-pack of crayons instead of the limited box of eight, having command of more than one form of communication multiples our ability to better understand and be understood.

Jerry Campagna is the publisher of Reflejos, a bilingual journal for Fox Valley readers. Readers can comment on his column at (847) 836-8336 or by e-mail at [email protected]

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