I’m a proud American with roots in both Italy and Venezuela. I consider myself bilingual, but that wasn’t always the case!
A Lifetime to Become the Bilingual I Wanted to Be
My parents are native Spanish speakers. My dad was born in Italy, but was raised in Venezuela, where he met my mom. I was born in Miami, and Spanish was my first language. Like many kids in the United States, I quickly picked up English because it was the dominant language. Though because I was a quiet kid, (and we spoke only Spanish at home) my mom tells me she was worried that I didn’t understand English. I spent a lot of time just observing my surroundings.
As a parent of bilingual kids, I now know I was probably just absorbing my second language. In fact, the first stage in second language learning is what’s known as the “silent period.” This is when comprehension of a language develops, but before a learner is capable of speech in that language. In my silent period as a kid, I was learning and understanding the English world around me, but I wasn’t yet able to say much.
When I entered school, I wasn’t placed in an ESL program. Instead, I started in an English language classroom, but I don’t remember feeling lost. By that time, I was already a simultaneous English-Spanish speaker, which basically means I had proficiency in both languages and would use both to express my thoughts, especially when speaking to my parents.
But once I entered the school system, a system that was taught only in English, my proficiency in English grew while my Spanish only stayed constant. Soon, I was speaking to my parents in English while they spoke to me in Spanish. I remember feeling frustrated when my mom would try to help me with my homework, because she would speak to me in Spanish and it wasn’t the language, I was learning in. I remember opting for my dad’s help because he spoke more fluently in English.
Growing Up First-Gen
While Miami is considered a bilingual city, what was happening in our family was happening to many Miamians: As a first-generation child, I was becoming more fluent in English and less proficient in Spanish, even while I fully understood Spanish and could speak well enough to get by in public places and have casual conversations. As with many first-gen citizens, this would have an impact on my ability to pass down my heritage language to my kids.
With summer visits to Venezuela, my parents tried to stay connected to our roots and language. But as I got older, the yearly interactions with my cousins in Spanish weren’t enough to foster a high level of Spanish ability. I remember struggling to express myself completely. I also remember feeling I wasn't Venezuelan enough. But at that moment in time, it really didn’t matter to me – I wasn’t Venezuelan, I was Miamian, and it was okay to express my thoughts in two languages if I needed to. (This is known as code switching.)
Defining My Identity
I really didn’t know how limited my Spanish was until I went to college in Atlanta, where everyone seemed to have their group – a club or organization defined by their heritage, interests or faith. But where did I belong? I naturally gravitated toward the Hispanic groups, since it felt like the one identity, I was closest to. But somehow, I started feeling like I wasn’t Latin enough.
The individuals in the Hispanic crowd were mostly from Latin American countries, so they interacted completely in Spanish. I remember feeling frustrated that I could understand everything they said, but I was unable to produce a complete thought in Spanish without switching into English. All of them spoke English, so it wasn’t a problem to communicate, but it was a personal frustration. All this time, I thought I could speak Spanish fluently. That’s when I realized how limited my fluency was.
I remember calling my mom and asking her to please help me improve my Spanish – to only speak to me in Spanish and to correct me when it was needed. That was the beginning of a proactive approach to improving my Spanish that was critical to my identity.
In college, I became intrigued by international business. Through my mom and my Hispanic friends, I had improved my Spanish immensely, and I felt confident that I could pursue a career in my field of interest. When I got an interview with Nestlé for an international role, I remember how devastated I felt when I realized I couldn’t speak Spanish professionally. I again realized the limitations of my Spanish – this time, from an academic standpoint. I was upset. I didn’t feel bilingual because I wasn’t able to effectively communicate professionally – and those professional opportunities simply wouldn’t be available to me.
Committing to My Heritage Language
From experience, I’ve learned that many Latinos in America feel like me. For many of us, the Spanish language is part of our identity, but it’s not something we’ve developed with high proficiency. Because most schooling in the United States is still solely in English, we very quickly surpass our Spanish fluency. And within our own families, we’re finding it difficult to pass down our heritage language – unable to get beyond the basics.
When my son was born, not only did I want him to be bilingual like me, I wanted him to surpass my abilities and be able to be proficient in both languages – to be able to speak, work and study in Spanish and English. That’s why a dual language education is so important to me. With two native Spanish-speaking parents, I had the best-case scenario, but I still couldn’t develop the fluency I needed to work in Spanish and pursue my professional interests. A passive approach only results in a basic level of communication. To reach fluency, language-learning must be purposeful.
I’ve come to terms with my limitations and made it a personal goal to continue developing my Spanish and help other parents raise bilingual kids. Many families with some Spanish fluency believe they can teach Spanish on their own. The reality is that even Spanish speakers need help. We need to create a positive environment around our children so that they can embrace their native language or Spanish as a second language, place them in environments where they are enriched and provided with the necessary language nutrition to become bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural, and support a dual language education. My kids are on a language learning journey – and I’m right there with them.
"There is no language of power, just language." – Aileen Passariello-McAleer
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This blog post was first published on MamaLingua