On Becoming Bilingual

The subways in Mexico City aren’t just empty tunnels: they’re entire underground cities, museums that stretch from one platform to the next, dark corridors lit with black lights illuminating the zodiac’s constellations.

We had just finished looking at models of the city as the Aztecs had built it, as the Spanish had rebuilt it, and finally as the country of Mexico had constructed it today, when I turned to my boyfriend and asked, “What language do you think in?”

I think about this a lot, noting with amusement if my dreams were in color or black and white, or if I saw them or felt them more, and how clearly the sounds were. Sometimes I’ll muse about whether I think more in images or words, in words or numbers. But generally–regardless of the manner of my thoughts–they’re defined by English.

My boyfriend grew up speaking Spanish and French and learned English later. Sometimes I like to imagine what it might have been like, hearing different words throughout my childhood. Except if I had grown up learning a different language, those differences wouldn’t have felt different–it would have been as natural as English.

In many ways, my language has shaped the way I see the world–as language does for everyone. My philosophies are inherently tied to grammatical structure; my interests wrapped up in syntax; my sense of humor in the meandering ways meaning can be construed (and misconstrued). If I had grown up speaking anything but English, I don’t think I’d have come out the same.

Not that I never tried.

I was fascinated by Latin when I was younger. I have no reason why (all I can think of is, perhaps, the relation of spells in Harry Potter to Latin), and I dabbled in it for half a year in high school; however, the Latin textbooks weren’t sufficient for homeschool curriculum, so I switched to Biblical Hebrew instead.

I can’t speak much Hebrew these days, but I still dream of becoming proficient enough I can explore Israel without a guide. Not to mention learn about Judaism on a much deeper level and explore both ancient–and modern–texts that still remain closed to me.

(While I was in Israel, I bought two books in Hebrew to challenge myself to learn the language enough to read them. They collect dust nicely, but still entice me to learn.)

I didn’t study Latin or Hebrew deeply enough for it to change the way I thought, and English has remained dominant ever since. I briefly dabbled (for a few days) in German, but academic obligations have always crushed my attempts at becoming bilingual.

Now that I’m learning Spanish, though, I’ve somehow managed to keep studying in spite of all my other responsibilities and–at the same time–long enough to rival my high school language classes. Starting in two weeks, I’m even taking a summer Spanish course before returning to Mexico for two weeks in August.

So as we moved toward our next destination, my boyfriend said, “I think in English,” and explained how one of his language teachers told him once that, when you learn a new language, you start to think primarily in that language.

Part of my flexed inside, forming a sort of frown. I like English. In fact, I love it–that’s why I enjoy writing so much, and poetry even: it’s for the words, as much as the story, how they look, how they sound, how they roll off my tongue. I’d feel a part of my soul wither away if I lost that closeness with English.

That hasn’t deterred me from studying, though, and I continue to practice Spanish (almost) daily. It seems a natural extension of my prior interest in Latin–and much more useful–and in addition to the linguistic closeness it offers me with my boyfriend, it opens a world of possibilities in education, travel, and politics. And every now and then, I wonder what it might be like in any number of years, raising my own children, balancing one language next to the other, shaping their world in a way I never could have imagined….

In fact, I’ve sometimes wished I’d had more exposure to language as a child–sure, I had Hebrew school, but that primarily taught prayers, language for a designated purpose at a designated time. I was never really shown the potential for excitement in knowing–especially speaking–multiple languages. Language was dependent upon where you lived or who you were, not on appreciation for culture or diversity. Just utility.

My niece religiously watches Dora the Explorer and sometimes Ni-Hao, Kai-Lan, a similar show blending English storytelling with Chinese vocabulary. I enjoy the intent of these shows, but even as I count or color things in Spanish with my niece, I recognize the shows fall short of truly promoting diversity: They largely tell U.S. stories (often encouraging children to yell, point, and jump up and down–all terrible behaviors), and the additional languages are merely tangential. Sure, they’ll teach a few numbers, some verbs, some nouns and adjectives–but they’re only teaching vocabulary. They’re not teaching language.

About a week ago I was browsing Kickstarter when I saw a book and stopped by for more information. Its title–“How Do You Dream?”–instantly brought me back to the subway in Mexico City, listening as I asked my boyfriend a similar question, “How do you think?”

“How Do You Dream?” is a bilingual storybook, reflected perfectly in its second title, “¿Cómo sueñas?” What’s even more exciting is that this story doesn’t merely aim to add multicultural vocabulary like Dora; it wants to encourage children to embrace being bilingual. Its primary audience is for immigrant families, to show “kids that speaking multiple languages is awesome!” But honestly, I want to read it myself.

On the one hand, I learned to love English through reading, and having an approachable (bilingual) book like this could help me experience that same sense of discovery with Spanish. And on the other hand, when I’ve got my own kids, I’d love to share it with them and tell them my story–how I, too, became bilingual.

For more information on “How Do You Dream?” and to back its campaign, click here.


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