Thursday, September 28, 2006

Which language should your child take?

Which language should your child take?

As a Spanish teacher, I’m always being asked for recommendations about which language a child should take.

This frequently comes up when children are moving up from elementary school – where in many cases, Spanish is the only language offered ¬ to middle school, where they actually have a choice for the first time. And this is what I often hear:

“Joey want to take French, but I think he should keep taking Spanish. I mean, he’s been learning Spanish since kindergarten, and it’s such a useful language ....”

To which I reply ....

Joey should take whatever language he wants!

Parents are almost always surprised by my response, especially since I am a Spanish teacher. And in fact, there are a number of language experts who disagree with me as well. Neither one likes to see what was learned in elementary school “wasted” if the child moves on to another language.

But to me, language is about a passion to communicate, a connection to the people, a love for the sound and feeling of the language, an interest in the culture and the countries where the language is spoken.

So as much as possible, you should be studying the language that appeals to YOU.

I don’t want people in my Spanish classes because they think it’s useful or – even worse – that it’s easy. (Hello?? Por vs. para? Ser vs. estar? A gazillion irregular verbs? Subjunctive????)

I want students who want to learn Spanish because they love it, because they love the sound of it, the culture, the music, the people, the poetry, the history, the literature ....

Certainly, we as teachers will always strive to bring that excitement into our classrooms and instill that love in all students. But sometimes, as in any relationship, the heart is elsewhere.

In languages, as in love, el corazón tiene razones que la razón desconoce. The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of.

But what about those “wasted” years, the time spent on another language that would be abandoned if a child moves on to another language?

No te preocupes. Don’t worry. I don’t believe any of that time, or any of that language learning, is wasted. In languages, anything that you have already learned will enhance what you study in the future. Even if it’s a different language, you are still programming your mind to learn different vocabulary, different sentence structures, and different ways of expressing things. And anything that you study in the future will reinforce what you have already learned – “Oh yes, that’s like what I learned in Spanish,” or “Oh, that’s different from the way you say it in Spanish.”

To reinforce my point, I always point out to parents – whose children, in most cases, started learning Spanish in kindergarten – that I didn’t learn a word of Spanish until 11th grade. I took Latin for four years, and then started Spanish (and the following year, added Italian). And even I, with my very self-critical manner, will say that I am near-native fluent now.

How and why did I become fluent? Because I loved the language, the culture, the people, the music, the food, the poetry, the literature .... all of it. Because I followed my heart and my interests and my passion.

So, which language should your child take?

Ask your child.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Immigration and the real linguistic danger

Direct from my Reuters news feed today. The facts speak for themselves ... although in a couple generations, they probably wouldn't be able to do that bilingually. And that, in my opinion, is the big story here, and the one we need to address.

Immigration no threat to English use in U.S.: study

PHOENIX (Reuters) - U.S. citizens concerned that Latino immigrants will have them singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in Spanish can rest easy, according to an academic study published on Wednesday.

A report in the Population and Development Review found that far from threatening the dominance of English, most Latin American immigrants to the United States lose their ability to speak Spanish over the course of a few generations.

The study by sociologists Frank Bean and Ruben Rumbaut of the University of California, Irvine, and Douglas Massey from Princeton, drew on two surveys investigating adaptation by immigrant communities in California and south Florida.

It concluded that by the third generation, most descendants of immigrants are "linguistically dead" in their mother tongue.

"Based on an analysis of language loss over the generations, the study concludes that English has never been seriously threatened as the dominant language in America, nor is it under threat today," the researchers said.

"Although the generational life expectancy of Spanish is greater among Mexicans in Southern California than other groups, its demise is all but assured by the third generation," it added.

Third-generation immigrants are American-born with American-born parents, but with three or four foreign-born grandparents.

The study, which also included some data from immigrant groups from Asian countries, weighs into a polarizing debate in the United States on the desirability, or otherwise, of linguistic assimilation for immigrant minorities.

Differences flared earlier this year when a group of Latino and Caribbean artists recorded a version of the "The Star-Spangled Banner" in Spanish, prompting condemnation from some public figures including President George W. Bush.

"The national anthem ought to be sung in English," Bush said of the version, dubbed "Nuestro Himno" by the artists. "And I think people who want to be citizens of this country ought to learn it in English."

Friday, September 08, 2006

She makes a man want to speak Spanish ...

... and more than a few women, too!

(She also makes me want to take about 8 hours of belly dancing classes a day ...)

I went to the Shakira concert at Madison Square Garden last night – a fantastic experience. Shakira looked more comfortable and natural than she has in years. She was barefoot the entire night, left her hair loose and naturally curly, and wore loose-fitting pants and a crop top or T-shirt for much of the concert, instead of the overly sexy, bleached blonde, tight-leather-pants-and-high-heeled-boots look of her last tour.

I still prefer the dark-haired Shakira of her pre-American-market days, though ... but that's another story. I guess she did what she felt she needed to do to conquer the American market. And who am I to argue, if she just sold out two concerts at Madison Square Garden? Now she's a big enough success to have her Spanish-language songs become hits on English-only radio stations. (And to anyone who thinks she has sold out commercially, I would ask: "When was the last time you saw classical Indian dance on the MTV Video Music Awards?")

Vintage Shakira

Last night's included such a wide range of musical and cultural influences that I couldn't even begin to count them! But I'll mention the ones I can think of ... Colombian, Middle Eastern, Indian, hip hop, reggae, rock, bossa nova, pop .... well, that's a start, at least.

And our special treats for the night: an opening set by Wyclef Jean, who was incredible; a surprise appearance by Alejandro Sanz that was greeted with an ovation that nearly blew the roof off the Garden, and a "Hips Don't Lie" finale including the saffron-sari'd Indian dancers who were featured with Shakira on the MTV Video Music Awards.

My only complaint – for someone who makes so many people want to speak Spanish, she herself didnt speak any last night! She addressed the crowd entirely in English (extremely fluent English, by the way). Given that the audience was at least 80 percent Spanish-speaking, that was a surprise. Fortunately, most of her songs were in Spanish, though – which is a good thing, since she sounds so much better in Spanish than in English. ("Hips Don't Lie" is the exception that makes the rule, in my opinion.)

That's a minor complaint, though, given the the incredible creativity, artistry, musicality, warmth and non-stop energy that Shakira shared with us last night. I can't wait to see what she will do next. And while I am waiting, I'll sign up for some more belly dancing classes. What an inspiration!

(PS - Thanks to my best comadres, and our honorary compadrecito, for being there to enjoy the experience with me!)