March 23, 2012

Why Are We Still Debating The Benefits of Bilingualism?

Speaking Klingon does not count as a second language.

I’m not going to bother reading this New York Times essay titled The Benefits of Bilingualism.

Why not? First of all, I’m busy. Second, I’d rather write this post and I really am kinda busy right now. Third, and most important, I truly cannot believe that there are people in the world who don’t understand that it is a good idea to know how to speak more than one language. (And Klingon doesn’t count. Sorry.)

What am I talking about? Well, the existence of this essay in the Times indicates to me that there are, in fact, people in the world who don’t get this.

I shouldn’t be surprised. The topic of when to start teaching children a second language is something that has been debated for as long as I can remember. In my opinion, kids should be introduced to a second language as early as possible. That doesn’t mean flash cards and Mommy & Me classes. (Aside: there are no Daddy & Me classes. We’ll get to that some other time.) It means when they start school, either pre-school of kindergarten, drop a few Spanish words in there.

When I was a lad, I watched a show called Villa Allegre.

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That was the theme song. Catchy, si? “Si” means “yes” in Spanish. I know this because of Villa Allegre.

OK, I know this because I’ve lived in New York my entire life where lots of people speak Spanish and I’m not an idiot. But Villa Allegre, which ran on PBS when I was a kid, was a bilingual TV show. They had more than just a Spanish Word of the Day. The cast was Latino, they sang songs in Spanish, and the words “multicultural” or “politically correct” were never used. It was just a show for kids that happened to be primarily about Hispanic culture and language. (Note: I’m using “Latino” and “Hispanic” here in ways that may be incorrect. Feel free to correct me if you like. That’s political correctness, but also actual correctness.)

What’s my point? I was a little kid living in the Bronx. A lot of my neighbors spoke Spanish. I didn’t think it was weird or un-American. They were my neighbors. And Villa Allegre was a TV show that I watched regularly. I didn’t think of it as something strange. It was just there.

It also introduced me to Spanish. It did not, however, teach me to Spanish. That’s what school is for. Except that I didn’t get any Spanish classes until high school. By then, it was too late because (a) I was older and (b) I was a pain in the ass adolescent.

Do I speak Spanish today? No. I have a few words and phrases, most of them from classes in high school. If you need to know how to tell someone that Lupe and Pepi are in the kitchen, in the United States, and that Pepi is large, I’m your man. But that’s about it.

This is not a good thing. Had I been exposed to Spanish in school at a younger age, perhaps that would have reinforced what I was getting from television by watching Villa Allegre. Don’t laugh. It could have worked. We’ll never know, unless someone invents a time machine and I go back and change stuff. Which I would never do because messing with the space-time continuum is a bad thing. That’s also something I learned from television, specifically Star Trek. Ha!

Back to my original point. The Benefits of Bilingualism should be obvious. Sadly, it would seem they are not. Maybe this New York Times essay will help change that. I doubt it. Personally, I’d rather they just start airing Villa Allegre reruns. If nothing else, you have to agree that the theme song is rather catchy. Na, na na na, na na…

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The Benefits of Bilingualism – NYTimes.com

Conversational Klingon Audio Book image via Amazon. Note that when we are speaking of Bilingualism, Klingon does not count. Sorry.

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