The F Words: Bilingualism

Not counting the US, approximately 65-75% of the world’s population is bilingual. In the US in 1980 only 10% of the population was bilingual. Today that number has risen to 20%, possibly to 25%, primarily through immigrants, largely Spanish-speaking.

Many different cultures have positive proverbs about knowing more than one language. An old Persian proverb states: “A new language is a new life.” But this respectful attitude toward bilingualism and even polyglotism did not make its way across the Atlantic and into North America. Up until recently there was a stigma attached to speaking a second language (one that wasn’t English) in the US and Canada.

Yet many different studies have shown that bilingual people have many advantages over those who are monolingual. 

In no particular order, here are a few of these advantages:

  • Greater Brain Power — Bilingualism improves memory, multitasking, problem solving, and creativity.
  • Increased Academic Skills — Bilingual children score better in literacy, emotional development, and social skills. 
  • Greater Cultural Awareness — Being exposed to the language and customs of other cultures helps a person develop more empathy. As Charlemagne put it 700 years ago, “To have another language is to possess a second soul.”
  • Greater Job Opportunities — people who speak two languages are more competitive in the job market because they have more language skills.

Canada has a partial policy of bilingualism, assuring the right of the French minority to instruction in their own language. And students in the publicly funded schools of Ontario, Manitoba, and New Brunswick are required to study French from grades 4 through 8. (Apparently this is not an educational requirement in Canada’s other provinces.)

Because this is not a nation-wide requirement, only 18% of Canadians are truly bilingual. The rest, for the most part, speak only English, though they may speak and read French to a lesser degree. That is, not a full-fluency degree.

I can identify with people who have studied other languages but don’t have full fluency in them. That, in fact, identifies me. I do not have full fluency in Croatian or German or Russian or French (though my high school French really helps me when it comes to solving crossword puzzles!). I suspect, though, that I subconsciously yearn for fluency in a second language. 

This subconscious yearning and my actual language experiences resided within me for decades and, even though I never consciously thought about the question of bilingualism, they bubbled forth and formed a strong subtext within my YA novel, The F Words. To my surprise the whole question of bilingualism revealed itself in a way I never would have thought of had I been making a conscious decision.

Let me explain. The main idea, the thrust and theme of The F Words is not bilingualism. The novel is about a working class high school teen, Cole Renner, whose father has been sentenced to 120 days in Cook County Jail for “inciting to violence” while leading a public protest against the closing of a neighborhood school. Cole fears for his father, and that fear drives part of the plot. At the same time, Cole works to help his best friend, Felipe Ramirez, run for class president.

The F Words is about student rights, immigrant rights, freedom of speech . . . and poetry. The poetry is an assignment: when Mr. Nachman, Cole’s English teacher, catches Cole tagging the high school wall with the F word, he requires that Cole write two poems a week, each about a word that begins with the letter F.

But the issue of bilingualism and the advantages of bilingualism are woven into the story. (As is the poetry.) First, there’s Felipe, who is fluent in both Spanish and English, able to converse on equal terms with all of his fellow students. Felipe, who is very sociable, wins the votes of his classmates.

Because Cole and Felipe have been best friends since first grade and spend time at each other’s houses, Cole has learned Spanish and is able to converse with Felipe’s entire family. Like Felipe, Cole can switch back and forth between languages easily. Both characters are more flexible, in many different ways, than they would be if they were monolingual. And although I never gave a single consideration to something called “mutual bilingualism” while writing The F Words, it seems to me that this is what we should want for ourselves and our country. Felipe needs to be able to speak English, but Cole (and others) needs to be able to speak Spanish. Bilingualism is a two-way street.

Cole and Felipe aren’t the only bilingual characters in The F Words. There’s also Emerald Jackson, who speaks two kinds of English: Standard and Black. Cole notices this and admires it, as when they are in English class and Mr. Nachman is asking questions about Walden.

Emerald Jackson is nodding her head up and down, up and down. “We the richest country in the world, not counting some of those little Arab emirates like Qatar. Everybody should have a huge house and three cars.” Sometimes Emerald talks in Black dialect. Like now. I always like it when she does.

Later in the same class:  

“Money rules our lives,” answers Emerald. “We need to earn it to buy food and housing. And clothes. And go to college. He’s saying we need to make decisions about what we’ll spend our lives doing.” Sometimes Emerald speaks in standard English. Like  now.

If these examples were the only bilingualism running through The F Words, the story might imply that there are no problems with being bilingual in the United States. That, sad to say, is not the case. Those who speak two languages are, unfortunately, frowned upon and discriminated against by many — even by teachers.

All my life I’ve heard monolingual people say things such as “If you can’t speak English, go back to where you came from.” It’s hard to say what’s worse about such an attitude: that it’s self-righteous, or that it’s ignorant. Almost every time I’ve heard this said, it has been said to a person who is an American. That is, born and raised in the United States, but able to speak two or more languages.

This myopic monolingual attitude is depicted in The F Words. Cole and Felipe have just been called to the principal’s office, and during the course of her interrogation Ms. Delaney asks Felipe if he’s related to Bianca Sanchez. He is. She’s his cousin, and she was expelled from their high school because, when a teacher told her to speak English or go back to Mexico, Bianca retaliated. 

Although I created the fictional situation in which this occurs, the fact is that such things are still occurring in our school systems. As I was writing the second draft of The F Words, students in a New Jersey high school walked out of class when a teacher implied that a bilingual student had no right to speak Spanish: that her only “right” was to speak “American.” As I was writing the third draft an Illinois third-grade teacher punished Spanish-speaking students (when they spoke in Spanish) by making them sit on the floor, apart from other students. There are many other examples.

When I was writing The F Words and had Bianca retaliate against the teacher, I wasn’t aware that in so many cases today the bilingual students are fighting back, using the cameras on their phones to record the incidents, then reporting to the principal and their parents and the media. I’m aware of them now. Clearly students who speak two languages are proud of speaking both languages and feel that they have a right to do so. 

Which takes us back to one of the main advantages of bilingualism — increased brain power, leading to greater creativity and skills at problem solving. I’m so glad I was able to capture and depict this situation in The F Words, and I would like to see every young person have the opportunity to move freely and happily through another language, growing in understanding and ability. As a Chinese proverb puts it: “To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world.”

______________________

The F Words is available wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

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