Ana Veciana-Suarez: Being bilingual doubles the pleasure of language

A parent’s work is never done, and my latest mission is a true crusade of the heart.

I want my granddaughters, the blondes and the brunettes, the kindergarteners and the crawlers, to learn Spanish. A second language will serve them well in life.

In Miami, this undertaking might seem to be redundant. The language of the conquistadors is heard at both shopping mall and mega-church, in factory floors and boardrooms. It’s taught in classrooms at many levels. Some even complain there’s too much Spanish.

But I’ll let you in on a secret. By the third generation, it’s very difficult for families such as mine to hold on to the language from the old country. Unless there is a concerted effort by native speakers — abuelas like me — accents and diphthong combos become little more than a subject in school, what the old folks, los viejos, speak among themselves when they get together over dominoes. In my granddaughters’ world, Spanish is mere spice, flavoring strategically sprinkled to maximize the message.

“These are my pantalones,” says the 2-year-old as she slips a leg into her pants. That, unfortunately, is the extent of her Spanish.

For me, however, Spanish is more than my first language. It’s a tool, a valuable skill for the competitive marketplace, no less important than a prospective employee’s proficiency with Excel or any other computer software program. The same can be said for the use of Portuguese, French or German, Hebrew, Chinese and Arabic.

I’m a big fan of bilingualism, and I’m happy to note that, even as our country is cleaved in two by the heated immigration debate, even as voters ban bilingual education or limit the offerings of foreign languages in shortsighted school districts, recent studies consistently show that bilingualism is good for you. For us. For our place in a global economy. The effects extend beyond the obvious practical benefits of being able to communicate in a second language.

A few days ago, researchers at Penn State published a study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology that showed bilinguals who switch languages seamlessly develop a higher level of mental flexibility than people who speak only one language. “When you’re switching languages all the time it strengthens your mental muscle and your executive function becomes enhanced,” one of the researchers said in a statement.

Add this to the growing body of work that shows that being bilingual makes you smarter, even protecting against dementia in old age. One study at the University of California, San Diego found that the higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the age of onset for Alzheimer’s disease.

Being bilingual also heightens one’s ability to monitor the environment. A study of German-Italian bilinguals found they were better than Italian monolinguals at keeping track of changes happening around them and their brains did so more efficiently.

Bilingualism may be earning its well-deserved place in the pantheon of pedagogy, but it wasn’t always so. For years, learning two languages was seen as a drawback to a child’s academic development. Cognitive interference, they called it. In my era, you were sent to the principal’s office for using another language.

If we bilinguals are finally getting our due, it’s not without accompanying responsibility. I, for one, feel it’s my duty to pass on this gift, to open the door to the world a little wider through the melody of different words and phrases . Maybe one day, when they’re grandmothers themselves, my sweet girls will treasure the offering.

After all, the ability of language to inspire, to create, to uplift is invaluable. You can find its magic everywhere. On the page and on the screen. Sung or whispered or shouted. And with two, you’re doubling that power.

Follow Ana on Twitter @AnaVeciana.

Read more Ana Veciana Suarez stories from the Miami Herald

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