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Ana Veciana-Suarez: Two languages — or even three — are better than one

After reading an article about the benefits of being bilingual, I called my oldest son about it. Then, for good measure, I fired off a text message with a link to drive home my point.

U gotta speak to the girls in Spanish

(That’s the beauty of technology: it’s easy-peasy to nag your progeny with a smartphone.)

But back to bilingualism, a crusade close to my heart for various reasons, not the least of which is that knowing both Spanish and English has helped me in numerous ways.

There’s the obvious advantage of being able to communicate with many more people, of course, but knowing a second, or third or fourth language, however rudimentary one’s vocabulary, also opens up the world in ways that are often unquantifiable.

This most recent piece I read recounts the visit to Florida International University by a California professor who has co-authored a book on the performance of bilingual workers in an increasingly globalized labor market. “Those who learned English and maintain their native language earn more, have higher-status jobs,” Patricia Gandara said.

Yet, bilingualism remains a controversial topic in the U.S., a hot-button subject that stokes xenophobic fears. Too many confuse bilingualism with new immigrants’ difficulty — some would say reluctance — to be proficient in English. Bilingualism, for them, means the invasion of a people with strange customs, separate holidays and, perhaps, different values, too.

I could paper my office walls with the letters and emails I’ve received over the years from readers upset over my stance on bilingualism or my occasional use of Spanish in a column. Some missives contain gross grammatical mistakes and this irony often makes me laugh — but only because I prefer not to weep.

For me language is like love. The more there is to go around the better, and if I were queen, or at least a school district superintendent, I’d make a second language mandatory in our schools, beginning in pre-kindergarten.

It would be a bonus for our children. Research has shown that bilingualism changes brain networks, improving cognition and facilitating new learning.

Newer studies point to something else as well: Older adults who speak two or more languages may resist the effects of age-related memory disorders better than monolinguals do.

No surprise there. Scientists have long known that keeping the brain nimble into old age is like garlic to the Dracula of dementia.

And language does keep the noggin oh-so-agile. I often find myself rummaging through my mental files to translate a thought for the Hubby, who doesn’t speak Spanish. Sometimes the best I can do is come up with an approximate version, but this problem doesn’t subtract anything from my enjoyment of having two ways of describing the same experience.

The past three generations of my family have each spoken a different language, and I grew up hearing my second cousins’ stories of how their native tongue, Catalan, was banned in public places, including schools, after the Spanish Civil War.

For them, as for me, language is identity, freedom, appreciation for a culture and a tribute to history. To speak two — or many — can only be a blessing.

So even as I urge my grandchildren to master the intricacies of English (read, read, read some more), I will forever carry the banner of bilingualism, the invitation to enter varied worlds.

Oh, to be able to express the soul in so many diverse ways.

Ana Veciana-Suarez’s column appears Sunday.

Write to her at The Miami Herald, One Herald Plaza, Miami FL 33132, send email to aveciana@herald.com, or follow her on Twitter @AnaVeciana.

McClatchy News Service

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