I have spent my life around different languages. At home, though I heard mostly English, there was plenty of Portuguese being thrown around, especially when my parents were talking about us. When I wasn’t at home, I was usually found at my best friend’s house, whose parents were francophone Quebecois. Another friend down the road lived with her Ukranian grandparents. I befriended the foreign students, starting with the little Italian girl who started school with us in 2nd grade. After all this, it should come as no surprise that I have spent the last 20 years focusing my attention on languages and linguistics.
When my oldest sisters started school, they spoke almost no English. After some time of watching her children become confused by hearing English at school and Portuguese at home, my mother decided that the best thing for the family would be to switch the home language to English. She did not want her children to have difficulty at school, and believed that dealing with two languages would only serve as a distraction and source of confusion for them. She wanted to make it easier to navigate this new culture and society she and my father had chosen to live in. As a result, I was born into a family that had made the transition almost completely into English, with the exception of certain kitchen commands, food terms, random traditional expressions, and ‘colorful’ phrases one would say when very angry at a small girl who has just broken the sugar bowl.
As a teenager and adult, I’ve had moderate success with second languages, but I longed for the same ease in another language as I have in English. I listen enviously to all the people I know who were lucky enough to have been brought up bilingual, and I wondered what prompted my mother – and many like her – to believe that maintaining her native language at home while her children learned English in school would have been a mistake. Continue reading