How to deal with Bilingualism in America.
A bit of Linguistics
I have already written about History, about the reforms that Education is crying out for, political issues — including the national disaster after the November 2020 elections — something about the pandemic, love, travel, etc., and I realized I have not written anything about my profession: Linguistics. In my case, Linguistics applied to teaching Spanish as a foreign or second language.
When I started being a Spanish teacher for foreigners, I came from having spent five years in a British university with my English studies, and I understood very well what a person has to undergo to have a deep knowledge of a language, very much so when that language is not their own. I went through all the stages of learning, … and it is not easy. But as a famous Spanish poet once said: “Wayfarer, there is no path; you make the path as you walk”.
I advocate bilingualism as a means of expanding the minds of children and young people, and I also consider it very beneficial to have contact with another “set of words” and its culture. A language also has its history; it does not fall from the sky, nor is it formed in a short period of time. Moreover, it is part of the national evolution of a nation and its historical episodes, and also of the events have taken place in its environment. I believe we should all be bilingual, without exception.
Although America is a multicultural country where all races, religions, languages and cultures exist, the term “bilingualism” is generally associated with Spanish-speakers, who after many years living in the USA, have English as their second language -if they speak it, of course-, although for their children it is their first language, because they were born and educated here. Also, in Chicago, Poles are considered bilingual, since there are a million people from Poland, both first and second generation. There is also a third generation, but it is already mixed with Americans, Blacks and Hispanics.
First of all, we are not going to talk about any specific language, nor about how the different nationalities living in the U.S.A. cope with bilingualism, but I will comment on how the two groups I have known best during my almost 15 years as an ESL Spanish teacher (1) in the U.S.A. deal with bilingualism: the Polish and the Hispanic.
It is important to be clear about what it means to be bilingual. A person who was born with English, and later studied and mastered another language, be it Spanish, French, Russian, or Japanese, is just as bilingual as a person who belongs to the French-speaking world and knows Italian, Danish, or Chinese perfectly well.
To be bilingual is to have a very deep knowledge in two languages, and to switch from one to the other without any difficulty. Period.
For this, it is necessary to understand and speak both languages very well; and in addition, to know how to read and write them both correctly. In all countries, the person who understands and speaks his native language, but does not know how to read and write it, is called illiterate, and is usually someone who never went to school, or has a congenital defect that prevents them from doing so. Without reading and writing, the possibility of communication is quite limited. So we cannot forget the need to master the four skills in language learning --understanding, speaking, reading and writing-- for the concept of bilingualism.
It is exactly in the order I have mentioned the skills to be developed in acquiring a language, that all human beings become proficient in their native language at home as children. One by one. As adults, we have to learn all four at the same time.
I assert that in the modern world it is a must to be bilingual. In fact, in Europe it has been -and still is- very normal to know several languages well, although in many cases this phenomenon is a product of the fragmentation of countries (2). But in America there have been entire generations of monolinguals for centuries. Until now. That must change and is changing. I believe in bilingualism and how beneficial it is for a child to grow up with two sets of words -“two dictionaries”- in his head.
Sadly, I do not know the linguistic world of each of the nationalities living in America -many, very many- to know how each human group reacts to their need for bilingualism. Although I have American and Asian students, my teaching experience -without my expressly seeking it- has been with the Polish group for many years; and, later, with the Hispanic group.
Poles in Chicago
To begin with, I will dedicate this first article to the immigrants from Poland, that beautiful Eastern European country, and to the many Poles who have been or still are my students.
It would not be logical to refer to all Poles; each family is different and only general lines can be drawn. Poles arrive in the USA, usually with minimal English, but they immediately get into the free schools that help immigrants, and stay there for several years. They know very well that if they do not speak and write English, their chances of a medium or good job may be slim.
Others arrive without speaking a word, and work for many years in Polish companies or businesses, without learning more than the bare minimum of survival.
I have also known people from rural areas of Poland, who have come to work in American factories and have always been more or less skilled workers, whose English is rather limited and speak it quite poorly (3), but . . . they speak it. So they will work for many years at what they learned in a business or factory and retire with a very decent pension.
Those who aspire to have a professional job, without English do nothing. Many Poles bring a university degree; others stayed on the threshold of university, and wish to make an educational effort here. In both cases speaking English is imperative, much more so if they have to talk to clients, patients, students, etc. Without English, they will have to stay in semi-skilled or unskilled jobs, and this is not what they want.
I am very surprised that those who have a medium to higher education, once they are fully on track in their economic activity, job, business or career, say around the age of 40 or so, begin to study Spanish. Quite often are they forced by professional circumstances; or -I have seen many cases-, simply as an intellectual challenge, and the possibility of having a good knowledge of the second most spoken language in the USA and in the Western world.
It is precisely this group of Poles, who once married and with children, send their offspring to the Polish School (4) between the ages of 3 or 4. As they grow up, children not only practice their home language, but also study what could be primary school in any Polish school; that is, their language (including grammar, reading, writing, compositions, etc.), Polish history, mathematics, geography, etc. They are in this school until the age of 14, when they finish Polish and American elementary school.
By that time, the children are fully bilingual with no possibility of going back. They can travel to Poland and feel with their families -especially with the young people- totally integrated, at ease, in their environment, because they can communicate without problems with all of them. They know they are Americans and are on holidays, but that doesn’t stop them from enjoying their parents’ country and their Polish families, where their roots are.
These young Polish kids have grown up with two “dictionaries” in mind, perceiving the linguistic differences between them, and also the difficulties they face when trying to translate from one to the other.
As a teacher of Spanish as a foreign language, I have met several families who, in order to round out their children’s education as they grow up -at around the age of 9 or 10-, urge them to start studying Spanish just once a week. Then, the kids gradually build up another “dictionary” in their minds, and by the time they are 18, when they graduate from High School, they are practically trilingual.
Not bad, right? I would say, not bad at all. Imagine: a Slavic language, a German language, and a Latin language. Three traditions totally different.
Whether they are adults or young people, Poles have never given me any problems in teaching Spanish: they do their homework, show real interest in learning and do their best to practice what they know, going on vacation to a Spanish-speaking country -usually Mexico, but also Argentina, Chile, Ecuador or Costa Rica- to feel their progress. And what is more important: they know beforehand what a noun, an adjective, a verb, a preposition, etc. is, because in all European countries the native language is studied from the first grade of Primary School to the last year of Secondary School, including its Literature.
In-depth knowledge of your own language comes to the fore when studying a foreign language. This is important to keep in mind.
In the next article I will talk about the situation of bilingualism among Spanish speakers. Unfortunately, it is very different from the Polish reality.
(1) ESL = Spanish as a Second Language.
(2) It is not uncommon to hear two languages in border areas. I met a Ukrainian lady who spoke to her family on the phone in what sounded to me like Italian and, of course, I understood some of it. When I asked her, she told me her family language was Romanian. She was from the area bordering Romania, which is certainly a Latin country. Also the West Moldovans speak Romanian, as Moldova is a small country located between Romania and Ukraine.
I realized this situation when I was waiting for a train to travel from Poznan, West Poland, to Berlin, Germany. Somebody spoke to me in Polish and I shook my head as saying “I don’t speak Polish”. He changed to German, and I did the same. I didn’t need any language to understand something he mumbled next, which surely it was “Don’t you speak Polish or German ? What are you doing here?”. Still smiling, I took my train later. My bilingualism was different.
(3) Today I go, yesterday I go, tomorrow I go. As Polish language doesn’t have the compound tenses of verbs, . . . it is a must to simplify.
(4) I call it “The Polish School” for children and teenagers, but maybe it has another official name. It could be “The Polish Saturday School”. The kids only go on Saturdays, but as far as I know, they are in school for 8 hours, from 9 am to 4 pm. I enthusiastically greet and applaud this educational and entrepreneurial idea.