April 20, 2001

Grandfather Abuelo Knows Best

By Donal Brown

My two-year-old grandson knows me by "ha, ha, ha," a greeting we used when he recognized me before he had words.

Now that he knows words, I am not only "ha, ha, ha" but also "grandpa" and "abueloa" as well.

When I want him to give me a kiss, I say to him, "Dame un beso." When he sings "twinkle, twinkle, little star," it's "brilla, brilla, estrellita."

His first sentence was "I hit the ball." He's being schooled in two languages, Spanish and English. It would have been three, but it got too hectic when Italian was added. Maybe he can learn Italian in college, like his father.

In multicultural America, by the third generation, on average, the language of origin is lost. When I was teaching high school, the grandchildren of immigrants only shrugged when I asked if they knew Spanish, Cantonese, Polish or Italian.

Our grandson's birthday party is at his grandmother's house and the extended Latino family is there. It is festive, especially the rhythmic and dulcet sounds of the mariachi. The band plays the famous song, "El Nino Perdido"' — "The Lost Child" — with a distant trumpet answered by another trumpet on stage. My grandson takes some whacks at the pinata. We feast on tamales, beans and rice.

I do not know how any of my forebears celebrated birthdays. My middle name is Flinn, but I don't think of myself as Irish. I am also descended from Mennonites, but do not participate in their culture.

I would be like the rest of homogenized Northern European America except that I married an Italian-American and consider myself Italian by osmosis.

Italians celebrate family ties and cement relationships with lengthy dinners. We tell our guests to "mangia, mangia!" — "eat, eat!" or the food will get cold. My grandson is learning to curl pasta on his fork.

A young woman from New England who spent Christmas with us last year remarked later that she had never before spent so much time eating a holiday dinner.

Languages preserve differences and identity and cultural heritage, but for some Americans, an unreasoning fear of strangers translates into a desire to discourage the teaching (and learning) of languages other than English. So the whole idea of bilingual education is under fire.

Few students have rigorous instruction in any "foreign" language until high school. Asked if they want their children to learn English or their parents' language, immigrant parents naturally opt for English.

However, when they are asked their opinion of bilingual programs that cultivate proficiency in both languages, parents favor those programs.

Research has shown that in true bilingual programs, the language of origin can be maintained at no cost to English and in fact offers obvious advantages to students.

Yet the head of my grand-son's nursery school suggests the child should only speak English — apparently unaware of studies showing that bilingual children, although they may not at first perform as well as native speakers in either language, emerge not only unscathed but enriched with continued practice.

My son and daughter-in-law will continue as before to give my grandson a bilingual education — speaking to him and reading to him in Spanish and English.

If we give in to fears, however well intentioned, America is the loser — in richness of culture, in linguistic wealth, and especially in cohesiveness and connection. I feel happy that my grandson will be bilingual. Being able to conceptualize in two language may well make him smarter than average.

He will certainly feel connected by two cultures, Latino and Italian, and secure in family and family traditions.

Donal Brown taught journalism and English literature in California's public schools for 35 years.

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