My ten-year-old son wanders into the kitchen.
“Buenas dias,” I say. “¿Qué quieres desayunar?”
My son rolls his eyes and mumbles something about it being too early. “Yo quiero el pan tostado y los huevos.”
My son is learning Spanish. His younger brother, who wants more than anything to be his older brother, is learning, too, like a parrot. In July 2013, state demographers estimated that for the first time, whites and Latinos are now an equal share of California’s population. In 2014, California is expected to become the second state, behind New Mexico, in which Latinos are the largest ethnic group. With California’s demographics changing, my bilingual sons will, I hope, be better equipped for this new state of affairs.
But I have other reasons for welcoming a second language into our native English-speaking home. I’ve studied Spanish and Japanese and know a language is a portal into a different culture and ultimately a way to transcend those differences. On a recent trip to Tokyo, I rode the bullet train to Kirashiki and sat next to an older man, who told me he lived outside of Nagasaki when it was bombed. “A big bright light,” he said in Japanese. “For days, we did not know what it was.” He and his family, he told me, walked for miles and miles away from the light.
While the world reveals itself through language, it’s also shaped by language. Fascinating research is discovering that language’s power is not confined to communication or expression. It shapes the way we think and perceive such fundamental things as time, space, causation, and relationships. Studies have found that bilinguals change the way they see the world, depending on which language they are speaking. Arabic-Hebrew bilinguals, for instance, showed more positive implicit attitudes toward Jews when tested in Hebrew than when tested in Arabic. I want my sons to experience new ways of thinking and seeing the world. It seems more than ever, the world needs new ways of thinking.
I have another reason, or rather a secret hope, for raising bilingual children. I teach a university course called Style in Fiction, and it is my non-native English speaking students who are often the most keen about the subject. With great fervor and curiosity, they plunge into American English syntax, sound, rhythm, tropes and schemes. It’s like I’ve opened up a candy store. I can’t help but think of Vladimer Nabokov and Joseph Conrad, both native Russian speakers who learned English as a second language and became masters of that latter language. Or Junot Diaz and his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, praised for its distinctive voice—a dazzling hash of Spanish, English, and slang.
Here’s the thing: learning a foreign language brings a heightened attention to words, which translates into a level of precision in your writing. Why should the verb come right after the subject, as it does in the traditional syntax of English? Why not at the end, like Japanese or German? Why not use adjectives, as Arabic does, to make the sentence more pleasing? Or invite a long sentence and melodious nouns, as Spanish does?
My son has finished his pan de tostado.
“¿Mas?” I say.
“No, gracias,” says his little brother, a perfect imitation of his older brother.
My ten-year-old rolls his eyes.
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