Spanish is her mother tongue, but she also speaks English, Portuguese, French, Italian, and some German, Greek, and Latin. She spoke nothing but Spanish to me as an infant and small child because Spanish was also a necessity for me to be able to communicate with my Paraguayan grandparents. My father, who double-majored in Mathematics and Industrial Arts, does not have a slot in his brain for language, thus he spoke nothing but English to me. My parents tell me that I spoke, read, and walked very early compared to my peers. Clearly, being bilingual didn't slow down my speaking skills ... and I got used to speaking in both languages. It also made it much easier for me to learn a third language as an adult.
I'm lucky. We lived in Spain when I was very young (age 3-6), and I was literally immersed in the language, as most of my cartoons, songs, and socializing at home were in Spanish. We lived in base housing (my father was in the US Air Force), so my neighbors, playmates, and many of my parent's friends only spoke English. My parents also sent me to Anglican (and then US government) schools, where everything was taught in English. I even had books in both languages -- my favorite book was "Little Bear" ("Osito"). Because I lived between binary worlds (on-base versus off-base, mom versus dad, Little Bear versus Osito), I got in the habit of speaking to people in whatever language they spoke to me.
When I was six years old, we moved to Southern California. I went to an elementary school filled with immigrant children. Their parents had fled civil wars and poverty in Central America, Romania, Vietnam, and other far-flung lands. I suppose that I was shy because I had just moved there, so the first friends I made were the other newcomers -- the immigrant children. Most of them spoke Spanish, so I did, too. My first grade teacher knew that I'd moved from Spain and heard me speaking Spanish on the first day of classes, so she immediately enrolled me in ESL (English as a Second Language) because she thought I needed remedial tutoring to get my English skills up to snuff. That lasted about one hour.
When the Mexican-American ESL resource specialist began the skills assessment, she gave me instructions in Spanish, informing me that when she showed me a flashcard with an image on it, I was to tell her the name of the animal. I asked her whether she wanted the English word or the Spanish word for the animal (in Spanish, of course). She stopped, then said (in English) "both -- if you know the words."
I still remember the first card she showed me -- a shark. The funny thing is that I knew the word in English, but had to think really hard before saying tiburón in Spanish. After breezing through a few decks, she quickly moved to having me write down the words (in English and Spanish) as I said them. A few minutes later, she asked me to read aloud from books in both languages. When she took me back to my classroom, she flagged down my elderly English-only-speaking teacher and informed her that I was bilingual and already read at the third-grade level. In one hour, I had gone from ESL to being the only kid who used the "Webs on Wheels" reader. I was fortunate, because I got plenty of one-on-one time with the teacher's aide as it was just the two of us in my reading group, so my reading skills continued to advance much faster than they would have if I had simply kept pace with my classmates.
At some point (I think I was nine or ten), I rebelled and quit speaking Spanish to my mother. Her response was to inform me that if I wanted anything from her (food, clothes, even permission to be excused from the dinner table), I'd have to ask for it politely, en español. Each time I asked for anything in English, my mother would feign deafness. Finally, it sunk in.
By the time I got to junior high, I rebelled again and insisted on taking Spanish (she wanted me to take French, as I "already knew Spanish"), but I told her that I was taking Spanish because I couldn't read and write it very well. I took Spanish from the eighth grade through my freshman year of college, but quit speaking it unless I was in a situation that demanded it. Gradually, my skills went dormant and I forgot most of the complicated verb conjugations that I'd never really learned, but memorized right before a test.
The summer after college graduation, I toyed with the idea of learning Italian at Mesa College, but couldn't bring myself to go to class again so soon. Several years later, I decided to enroll in French classes at City College, because it seemed to be the next logical language to learn given my wanderlust and how many countries use French as an official language. I threw myself into it with a true passion, asking arcane questions of many professors, and really learning the language through coursework and a study abroad in Paris. I found the pronunciation rules maddening, as they were completely different than those of Spanish, but had a big advantage in the vocabulary department because there are so many Spanish /French cognates. I eventually moved from speaking Spench and Franglais and generally sounding like a redneck toddler when I spoke to speaking French with my mother on the phone for a bit, before switching rapidly from Spanish to French to English and back again. Then came Leo, my Uruguayan boyfriend.
His spoken English is accent-free, so much so that people are always amazed when they learn that he isn't a native speaker and didn't begin learning English until he was about 10 years old. His writing is also flawless, so much so that I admire and envy his complete mastery of both languages. Once it was clear that we planned to be a couple, I started asking for him to speak Spanish with me. He refused. Years later, he finally told me why -- speaking in Spanish with me lowers the discourse. It's true, but it's also something that I can remedy. For years now, I've told him that my trump card is the day that I get pregnant, when he'll have no choice but to speak Spanish with me for at least an hour each day, if nothing else because neither of us wants to raise a child who speaks Spanish like a redneck.
Meanwhile, I practice every chance I get. We watch Spanish films with the subtitles on, and I only glance at them if I don't understand a particular word or if there's a lot of country-specific slang. I speak Spanish with his parents 95% of the time. I took a Spanish for native speakers class during my MBA, working to improve my grammar and orthography. I'm looking to take another one, because I want to raise our children with Spanish and English at home, knowing that they will also learn the dominant languages of wherever we happen to live.
But when they rebel, I'll feign deafness and ask for them to repeat the question en español, just as my mother did.
Unraveling how children become bilingual so easily
By LAURAN NEERGAARD, AP Medical Writer
Tue Jul 21, 3:08 am ET
WASHINGTON – The best time to learn a foreign language: Between birth and age 7. Missed that window?
New research is showing just how children's brains can become bilingual so easily, findings that scientists hope eventually could help the rest of us learn a new language a bit easier.
"We think the magic that kids apply to this learning situation, some of the principles, can be imported into learning programs for adults," says Dr. Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington, who is part of an international team now trying to turn those lessons into more teachable technology.
Each language uses a unique set of sounds. Scientists now know babies are born with the ability to distinguish all of them, but that ability starts weakening even before they start talking, by the first birthday.
Kuhl offers an example: Japanese doesn't distinguish between the "L" and "R" sounds of English — "rake" and "lake" would sound the same. Her team proved that a 7-month-old in Tokyo and a 7-month-old in Seattle respond equally well to those different sounds. But by 11 months, the Japanese infant had lost a lot of that ability.
Time out — how do you test a baby? By tracking eye gaze. Make a fun toy appear on one side or the other whenever there's a particular sound. The baby quickly learns to look on that side whenever he or she hears a brand-new but similar sound. Noninvasive brain scans document how the brain is processing and imprinting language.
Mastering your dominant language gets in the way of learning a second, less familiar one, Kuhl's research suggests. The brain tunes out sounds that don't fit.
"You're building a brain architecture that's a perfect fit for Japanese or English or French," whatever is native, Kuhl explains — or, if you're a lucky baby, a brain with two sets of neural circuits dedicated to two languages.
It's remarkable that babies being raised bilingual — by simply speaking to them in two languages — can learn both in the time it takes most babies to learn one. On average, monolingual and bilingual babies start talking around age 1 and can say about 50 words by 18 months.
Italian researchers wondered why there wasn't a delay, and reported this month in the journal Science that being bilingual seems to make the brain more flexible.
The researchers tested 44 12-month-olds to see how they recognized three-syllable patterns — nonsense words, just to test sound learning. Sure enough, gaze-tracking showed the bilingual babies learned two kinds of patterns at the same time — like lo-ba-lo or lo-lo-ba — while the one-language babies learned only one, concluded Agnes Melinda Kovacs of Italy's International School for Advanced Studies.
While new language learning is easiest by age 7, the ability markedly declines after puberty.
"We're seeing the brain as more plastic and ready to create new circuits before than after puberty," Kuhl says. As an adult, "it's a totally different process. You won't learn it in the same way. You won't become (as good as) a native speaker."
Yet a soon-to-be-released survey from the Center for Applied Linguistics, a nonprofit organization that researches language issues, shows U.S. elementary schools cut back on foreign language instruction over the last decade. About a quarter of public elementary schools were teaching foreign languages in 1997, but just 15 percent last year, say preliminary results posted on the center's Web site.
What might help people who missed their childhood window? Baby brains need personal interaction to soak in a new language — TV or CDs alone don't work. So researchers are improving the technology that adults tend to use for language learning, to make it more social and possibly tap brain circuitry that tots would use.
Recall that Japanese "L" and "R" difficulty? Kuhl and scientists at Tokyo Denki University and the University of Minnesota helped develop a computer language program that pictures people speaking in "motherese," the slow exaggeration of sounds that parents use with babies.
Japanese college students who'd had little exposure to spoken English underwent 12 sessions listening to exaggerated "Ls" and "Rs" while watching the computerized instructor's face pronounce English words. Brain scans — a hair dryer-looking device called MEG, for magnetoencephalography — that measure millisecond-by-millisecond activity showed the students could better distinguish between those alien English sounds. And they pronounced them better, too, the team reported in the journal NeuroImage.
"It's our very first, preliminary crude attempt but the gains were phenomenal," says Kuhl.
But she'd rather see parents follow biology and expose youngsters early. If you speak a second language, speak it at home. Or find a play group or caregiver where your child can hear another language regularly.
"You'll be surprised," Kuhl says. "They do seem to pick it up like sponges."
EDITOR's NOTE — Lauran Neergaard covers health and medical issues for The Associated Press in Washington.