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Difficulties of bilingualism: “How come my cousins speak Spanish and I don’t?”

Two articles underscore the difficulties in achieving bilingualism in children even when you want them to be bilingual. Counter to what the English-only, English-first, or English-as-official-language believers say, it’s incredibly difficult to get a child to speak fluently in any language but those that dominate a society—so laws, campaigns, and cuts in bilingual education aren’t necessary.

Homes is where the native languages are. Roger Pulvers writes about what it took to get his children fluent in English even though they were living in Japan. “Frequent visits to the country of the parent who is not living in their own country are necessary. These should really be annual visits of up to a month, if possible. My wife and I, neither of us Japanese, did this over the years when we were living in Japan. We were putting our children through the Japanese school system; and even though we are both native speakers of English, our children’s command of the language was far from standard. Their better language, by far, was that of their outside world, namely, Japanese.”

Hispanic parents are frustrated because children won’t learn Spanish. Tal Abbady writes that even in Florida, where about 20 percent of Floridians speak a variety of Spanish at home, only 22 percent of third-generation immigrants speak even conversational Spanish, and then often without proper schooling in Spanish diction, language, grammar and verb conjugation. “As they enter adulthood in a Spanish-rich state, some second-generation Hispanics regret their English-only upbringing. ‘I should have learned the language at the time,’ said Alper, who says he’d have more opportunities at work if he spoke Spanish. As an adult, he’s asked his mother to start speaking to him in Spanish. ‘Now he makes me feel guilty,’ said Linda Alper, Jonathan Alper’s mother, also of Pembroke Pines. ‘He asks me “How come my cousins speak Spanish and I don’t?”’”

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Grant Barrett