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The case for living in two languages

Book cover of
Book cover of "Bilingual Is Better."
Bilingual Readers

The coauthors of a new book titled "Bilingual is Better," Roxana A. Soto and Ana L. Flores, also happen to be the two bloggers and bicultural mamis behind Spanglish Baby, a go-to site for parents who are trying to raise bilingual children.

To call such an undertaking a struggle is an understatement. Public school English-as-a-second-language programs have given way to English immersion for non-native speakers, and schools offering dual-language immersion classes are very limited. Even if they are learning a second language, some children rebel and only want to speak English. There are naysayers. The list goes on.

But the research out there does point to how speaking a second language is good for you, benefiting the brain in numerous ways, and eventually the pocketbook as dual language skills can help boost one's career prospects. And there are no better cheerleaders for life in two languages than Soto and Flores, who grew up bilingual themselves and are now raising bilingual children, at least trying their best to.

The book, with the authors' own stories adding a personal touch to the research, offers advice and reassurance to families in the bilingual parenting trenches. Here, Soto and Flores share a bit of their insight.

M-A: You refer in the book to there being a "bilingual parenting revolution." What is it, exactly? And how does it differ from the bilingual parenting of previous generations? 

Soto: The reference to a bilingual parenting revolution has to do with how more and more parents, regardless of cultural background, are realizing the true benefits of raising bilingual chidren.

While there are still many myths surrounding bilingualism, a lot of studies have been done in recent years that prove being bilingual can only bring about a positive outcome. But more than anything the reference is to how today's Latino community is waking up to the need and desire to raise bilingual children, even when they didn't grow up that way themselves.

I mean, we have a lot of third generation Latino parents who weren't taught Spanish – for various reasons, including discrimination and the false belief that in order to assimilate they had to choose English over Spanish – who wish they had learned it and who now want to make sure their kids learn it. And that's how it differs from the bilingual parenting of previous generations, especially in terms of Latinos and the English/Spanish combination.

M-A: What does the title of the book refer to? The brain power boost? Enhanced life opportunities? All of the above?

Flores: It refers to the overall benefits of bilingualism that research continues to prove exist, such as cognitive benefits, enhanced academic and multi-tasking skills, and an increased cultural awareness.

It also implies that we need to move away from the English-only claims this country has been listening to for way too long. We're trying to change that mindset one parent and one child at a time.

M-A: You have a section dedicated to common myths about raising bilingual children. Which one is your biggest pet peeve?

Soto: That's a great question. Honestly, all the myths drive me crazy because so many people still believe them to be true. But if I have to choose the one that's my biggest pet peeve, it's the one about how children who grow up with two languages get confused. It drives me crazy because I think it's one of the most common ones — and the one that most people against bilingualism seem to bring up — and because nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, babies' brains are like language learning machines, ready and open to learn as many languages as possible from birth without getting confused. Plus, I have two bilingual children of my own who've proven to me that there's no truth to this erroneous belief, as they've never had a problem differentiating between their two languages.

M-A: Bilingual education has changed dramatically. What is the state of bilingual education in the United States today, and how well is it working? Are dual-immersion programs the new ESL classes, and is the creation of some of these programs now being driven more by parents? 

Flores: There's definitely a palpable increase in the amount of dual-language immersion programs being offered in California and many other states like New York, Texas and Illinois. These programs are really being led by educated parents that have read the research and are convinced that giving their child a second language is a gift and a necessary 21st century skill.

At the same time, school administrators are getting to see the stories of success being presented by schools with immersion programs that are starting to outscore other schools. It's only a matter of time before the raw data becomes undeniable.

M-A: You both are raising bilingual children. How old are they now? What are the challenges to raising them this way? 

Soto: My daughter, Vanessa, is a six-year-old first grader. My challenge right now is that she's immersed in English all day long and although she hasn't reached the rebellious state and still loves speaking Spanish, I know the day will probably come in the not to distant future. But my biggest challenge is making sure she grows up biliterate too, meaning that she also reads and writes in Spanish — the true measure of a fully bilingual person, in my book. Since she doesn't go to a dual-language immersion school, it's really up to me to make this happen.

My son, Santiago, is three years old and he's in preschool. The challenge with him is that we only speak Spanish to him, which means that his English vocabulary is very limited right now. I know this will change dramatically as soon as he goes to school, but I still feel bad for him sometimes. 

Flores: My girl is five and just started kindergarten at a dual immersion magnet in Glendale, Calif. She has heard Spanish and English on a consistent basis her whole life since we only speak Spanish to her at home and English was heard in preschool. Of course, around the age of four we hit the rebellion stage where she refused to speak Spanish. I realized that my mistake was pushing it on her too much. But now that she started school, she's realized the value of the language and is now responding a lot more in Spanish, or at the very least making an attempt to do it.

M-A: Can you each relate a bit about your own bilingual upbringing, whether staying bilingual was difficult as a child or teen, and how being bilingual ultimately affected the direction of your lives? 

Soto: I was born in Peru and raised there, but I also spent half of my childhood years in Mexico, Argentina and South Africa, before moving permanently to the U.S. as a teenager. I bring this up because I grew up exposed to different languages and cultures from very early on. Both my parents are bilingual and believed we should be too, so while in Peru, they sent my sister and me to a bilingual school (the same one my mom attended as a child).

I honestly don't remember staying bilingual being particularly difficult, although when I first moved to the U.S. I refused to speak English because I wasn't happy with our latest move. But that didn't last very long. I believe being bilingual defines me personally and professionally like no other trait. It has allowed me to work as a journalist in both the English and the Spanish media, opening a lot of doors for me that wouldn't have been available otherwise. Ultimately, however, it has lead me down this amazing path, allowing me to create an incredible community, SpanglishBaby, for parents who share my same passion regarding bilingualism and to write a book all about it.

Flores: Ah, it's a huge question and pretty much my intro in the book covers it. But the short version is that I was born in Texas to parents from El Salvador. The first six years of my life I lived in Houston and learned both English and Spanish at the same time. I'm told we spoke Spanish at home and English elsewhere.

Then, my parents got divorced and my mom moved my sister and me with her to El Salvador. I was enrolled in the American School where I was pretty much immersed in English academically. I also had to travel to Houston every year and got to be immersed in English. So, bilingualism was innate to me. Never made an effort to speak English or Spanish.

My whole career up until this day has been what it is thanks to my bilingual and bicultural upbringing. I can read, write, and speak both languages perfectly and that's been a huge asset in my career as a content creator on video and online.

Hear an interview with Soto and Flores on KPCC's Take Two here.