Sunday, June 17, 2012

Growing Up Bilingual

WHEN I ENTERED St. George's School in the East Village in New York City, I couldn't speak English. I was born into an expatiate family; Ukrainian was the language spoken at my home.

My parents wanted to preserve their culture until they could return to their homeland - until the Communist regime changed -something that never happened in their lifetimes.
It was not long before a dichotomy arose in my young life: I had a language for home and discovered another at school. Quickly, I became bilingual.

Total immersion" is what today's bilingual educators would have called my experience. "Limited proficiency," I suppose they would have classified me now.

I don't remember my learning English being a struggle. For me it was a matter of simply going to school. I picked up the language by a type of osmosis - by being placed in an English-speaking environment -while I continued to speak Ukrainian at home and study it as a required second language in school. In addition to the very American Tom Sawyer, I had the very Ukrainian poems of Taras Shevchencko.

But, in the current jargon of education, the term "bilingual" has taken on a negative tinge. Being from another culture and speaking a different language are viewed as "disabilities," needing to be corrected. Overall, among educators, there seems to be a general agreement that courses taught in a different language tend to be less rigorous than those taught in English. Even New York and New Jersey, which have a history of providing generously for immigrants, agree with critics who say students in bilingual programs learn English far too slowly.

I, however, did not think my double life unusual. Many of my classmates came from homes where they, too, spoke a second language. Like our European parents, we simply took speaking another language - or two or three or even four - for granted.

Interestingly, sentence diagramming was to be come my favorite grade school topic. So I always thought that it was an asset, and even fun, to speak two languages.
There is a lot to be said about acquiring one's language skills from a regular classroom. In my case, English supplied a common forum that provided a basis for future learning. When I later taught English as a Second Language, it was English, too, that allowed for a delightful exchange among many students from backgrounds ranging from German to Arabic.

Isn't it time for all American students to start talking to each other?
Besides, knowing only one language and culture can be confining for English-only speakers as well.
Whatever happened to the second language requirement that used to be mandatory in many high schools? In addition to French, I had to take four years of Latin. In college, I went on to acquire yet another language, German, and another, Russian.
In addition to "Le Petit Prince," which I read in high school, I went on to read "Madame Bovary" in French, "The Aeneid" in Latin, the plays of Brecht in German and "War and Peace" in Russian.

So why do our educators so limit our students? Chym bilshe, tym krasche. The more (languages and cultures they experience), the better.

It's time our educators get back to the true meaning of "bilingual" - time they give all our students the opportunity to reach for the keys to the world.

As I look back on my multicultural experience, I can see the seeds of the writer I am today.

So, as I now move in American circles with my precise English, my colleagues often ask me what state I'm from, curious about my lack of a regional accent.
When I travel to Montreal, the natives assume I am French. And, in a few days, as an American journalist, fluent in Ukrainian, I will be going abroad to my parents' now independent but still troubled land.

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