It is a struggle to adapt to a new culture and language, which may be completely different from the ones young child may have already learned. This can lead to inner conflict, confusion, and even anger. One way to handle the conflict is to cut ties with the first culture including language. But is this the answer? Doing so can create a sense of loss. In the essay “Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood”, Richard Rodriguez shares his personal experience with learning English as a second language. In his linguistic journey, the author feels a disconnect between Spanish, the language used at home by his Mexican immigrant parents, and English, the language used in the public world. He raises an important question whether the primary language should be encouraged or forgotten. He disagrees with social activists on implementing the “family language” in public schools. He argues, that although the transition may be difficult, establishing public identity in the English speaking community is extremely important.
It should be every child’s obligation to learn and speak English. Even though his points may be valid to some degree, the research on benefits of bilingual education proves otherwise. Richard Rodriguez was born to Mexican parents. In his early childhood, Spanish was his exclusive language used by his parents, siblings, and family. He perceived this language as a “private language”, the language that gave him comfort. It was his family language, which was used in safety of his home, apart from a strange world of “los gringos”. “To hear its sounds was to feel myself specially recognized as one of the family, apart from los otros” (329). English, on the other hand, was the language little Ricardo associated with strangers, and it was only used in the outside world. Richard felt intimidated by it, because he knew quite well that his English was poor. “My words could not extend to form complete thoughts.
And the words I did speak I didn’t know well enough to make distinct sounds” (328). Rodriguez felt that he didn’t belong in the outside world. He was awkward comparing to native English speakers. He lacked confidence and he struggled to master “public language”. “I remained cloistered by sounds, timid and shy in public, too dependent on the voices at home. And yet I was a very happy child when I was at home” (330). He was also embarrassed by his parents’ heavily accented, ungrammatical English. Ricardo’s world collapses when he starts attending school and the nuns suggest to his parents, that they should only speak English at home. He no longer feels the same sense of intimacy as he did before. “ We were no longer so close, no longer bound tightly together by the knowledge of our separateness from los gringos. There was a new silence at home. As we children learned more and more English, we shared fewer and fewer words with our parents” (333).
He feels betrayed by his parents when he walks in on them whispering Spanish between each other, but switching to English when they see him. At this point, Richard becomes determined to learn classroom English. Rodriguez works hard to accomplish his goal, and with time and practice, he becomes confident speaking English in public. He gains a sense of identity among his classmates and he finally feels that he belongs in a “gringo world”. His new victory doesn’t come without a price tag. As time goes on, he becomes more and more distant from his family. He has a hard time relating to them like he used to. His relatives criticize him for forgetting how to speak Spanish. They mockingly call him “Pocho”. “ I grew up the victim of disconcerting confusion. As I became fluent in English, I could no longer speak Spanish with confidence” (336). For Richard Rodriguez growing up with English as a second language was not an easy task, but it enabled him to find his place in a community.
He felt that it was “his right and obligation” (331) to learn English and establish his identity as an American citizen. Rodriguez disagrees with social activists on the importance of bilingual education for ESL learners. He feels that instructing the children in their native language may delay their entrance into the public world. He argues, that it will hurt them in the long run. His point of view is based on his own experience, but research proves otherwise. According to Huffington Post, children benefit tremendously from bilingual education. Spanish speaking kids are able to adapt faster to the curriculum and the culture while English speakers develop better cognitive skills (Latino Voices, April 2014). Furthermore, reports from American Psychiatric Association show that children who are raised bilingual have a better ability to process sounds and therefore develop better concentration skills. They also have reduced levels of anxiety, loneliness and poor self-esteem (Psychiatric News, April 2012).
There are several other distinct benefits to the use of bilingual education. Most children enter school with basic language skills already in place – the language may be their native language, such as in Richard Rodriguez’s case, or English. It is entirely up to qualified teachers to use those language skills to help them develop the academic competence they need to succeed in life. Richard might have benefited from bilingual education, have the nuns did not discourage it. It is proven, that children learn more effectively if they learn English through the use of their native language. This method provides solid basis for learning and allows them to keep up with their classmates while acquiring the language they need in order to interact efficiently in society. Bilingual learning preserves children’s sense of pride in the language of their ancestors, allowing them to function in an English dominant society, while retaining an important bond with their cultural and linguistic heritage. Richard admits that he lost the bond with his relatives, when he gave up on speaking Spanish. Native language helps protect the children’s sense of identity.
This sense of identity is strongly linked to the language and culture of their family and heritage. In today’s economy, there are also material advantages of bilingual fluency and literacy. Most of the professions pay higher salaries to their bilingual employees. In a growing global society, the ability to speak and write in multiple languages is becoming necessary to be competitive in the job marketplace. Richard Rodriguez in his essay “Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood” argues that it is more important for a child to establish public identity in an English speaking community than maintaining the family language and culture. He feels that his native Spanish was a negative force in his life that held him back from acquiring good English skills. He was socially alienated by his home language and didn’t feel like a true American until he had mastered English. Bilingualists argue that teaching English as well as home language at school allows the student to retain his or her sense of identity. Rodriguez believes that intimacy is made not by the use of the language, but by the family, therefore being bilingual is not important.
So is it an asset or a burden to be raised bilingual? Although bilingualism is much appreciated around the globe, immigrant families often struggle with the maintenance of their native tongue and culture. Most of them loose their heritage and language within three generations. The loss of a child’s heritage language negatively impacts their cultural identity development, relationships with parents and grandparents, and even academic performance (Childhood Education March/April 2013). Conversely, the maintenance of a child’s native tongue produces many positive attributes such as better cognitive and concentration skills as well as reduced anxiety and improved self-esteem.
Rodriguez, Richard. “Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood”. New Worlds of Literature. Writings from America’s Many Cultures. Jerome Beaty, J. Paul Hunter. New York: Norton, 1994. Print. Arehart-Treichel, Joan. “Being Bilingual Brings Mental Health Benefits.” Psychiatric News. PsychiatricNews.org. Web. July 02, 2012. Benson, John. “Bilingual Education Holds Cognitive, Social And Health Benefits.” Latino Voices. HuffingtonPost.com Web. April 27, 2014 Szilagyi, Janka. “What if I don’t speak it?” Classroom strategies to nurture students’ heritage languages.” Childhood Education. 89.2 (March-April 2013): p117. Article.