Sunday, May 27, 2007

Of Language and Culture

I work with a number of Puerto Rican professionals and para-professionals who are mostly second-generation Americans, their parents having migrated to New York City in the middle of the last century (thus the self-chosen moniker "Newyoricans".

Getting to know the Puerto Rican community, there are many things I find curious and interesting. One of the things I find most curious is the fact that many Puerto Ricans who are second-generation Americans choose to speak only English at home, raising their children as monolingual English speakers. As one of my coworkers recently pointed out, she and her husband---both professional "Newyoricans" whose parents did indeed come to New York in the 1950's---use Spanish as a "secret language" at home, allowing them to talk about the children and other issues without being understood. While I appreciate the notion of parents having conversational privacy from their children, there is a cultural and economic advantage of growing up bilingual, and my colleague's children have missed a wonderful opportunity to enter the workforce as fully bilingual and bicultural adults.

Having grown up in a very assimilated third-generation Jewish European-American home, I have asked my parents about the languages spoken in their homes when they were children In New York City. Apparently, their grandparents spoke mostly Yiddish (and some Russian, apparently), also using said languages as "secret codes" to keep the children in the dark. By the time my parents' generation came of age, the only language used (other than for various popular Yiddish euphemisms and sayings) was English.

My friends in Europe speak many languages based upon the pluralistic nature of modern European society. Their children begin learning English in kindergarten (at least in Holland) and will graduate high school with no less than three languages under their belts, linguistically prepared for the modern economy.

For Latinos here in the United States in the 21st century, being bilingual and bicultural is an economic advantage not to be underestimated. With Latinos poised to be the majority of the country's population (over Whites, Asians, and African-Americans) by 2050, having facility in both English and Spanish is an incredible boost for any young professional's resume. How sad that my colleague's children have to learn Spanish "from scratch" in high school, struggling with the rudiments of the language which they could have had easily instilled in them from birth. Perhaps a genetic disposition for Spanish may be genetically possible, but there is no substitute for growing up immersed in more than one language at home.

But for every rule there is an exception, and I'm sure there are many Latino households where both English and Spanish flow like intermingling streams. The children who are lucky enough to be raised in an environment where fluency in multiple languages is the norm are sure to have a great economic and social advantage as this century matures. I hope that their non-bilingual peers eventually have an opportunity to even the score.
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