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Bilingual dreamer

By Esmeralda Santiago / August 20, 1987



WHEN I first came to the United States and was struggling to learn English, people often asked me, ``What language do you think in?'' The question always surprised me, because I wasn't aware of language as much as the need to express myself. I usually replied, ``I think in the language I'm speaking.'' But I was confused afterward, wondering if that was true. It didn't seem so, because many times I ran out of English words into silence, trying vainly to translate a word or phrase from Spanish, the only language I spoke until I was a teen-ager.

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When we came to the United States from Puerto Rico, my siblings and I spoke no English. We went to schools with no bilingual education programs and had to learn the language as best we could on our own.

At home, our parents spoke Spanish, but as we became comfortable with English we spoke both languages, changing from one to the other easily. We'd start a sentence in Spanish and midway switch to English. Sometimes we'd use our bilingualism to confuse our parents, who couldn't keep up with the swift changes from one language to the other.

This mixture of English and Spanish has, in fact, become the most comfortable, easiest, least stressful way for me to communicate. I can, of course, only do this when I'm with other bilingual people, which means most of the time I'm thinking in both languages and translating from one to the other.

When I visit Puerto Rico, I'm disoriented for a day or two. I must get used to the rhythms of the language all over again. In the two decades since I've been in the United States, I've remained fluent in Spanish by reading Gabriel Garc'ia M'arquez and other contemporary Latin American writers. So it annoys me when Puerto Ricans tell me my Spanish has an accent. After years of speaking English almost exclusively, my ``r's'' don't roll off the tongue with the same precision.

Often, when emotion rules, I'm silenced by the inability to find the right English words. I usually end these internal struggles with a mental shrug, an ``... as we say in Spanish ...'' prefacing the expression. The moment I've said it in Spanish, a loose translation comes to mind, and I wonder if I'd be more articulate if I spoke only one language.

In the last few years, I've thought a lot about these issues because I'm trying to bring up my children to be bilingual. Most of my friends, those who speak more than one language and those who don't, think it's wonderful, and tell me how good it is that I'm encouraging Lucas and Ila to learn both languages from the time they're babies. I've realized that, given a choice, children will speak only one language - that of their peers. This has been brought home to me again and again, when Lucas, who's 7, refuses to speak Spanish in front of his monolingual friends because they make fun of him.

But I insist that my children at least feel comfortable in Spanish. It makes it possible for them to get to know their maternal grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins. It also gives them access to a world beyond the borders of the United States. They know that there are other cultures with traditions that may differ from what they're used to, that there are people who eat different foods and sing different songs and dance to different rhythms.

I suppose people who are monolingual by birth or choice don't think about these things. They never have to stop in the middle of a sentence to search through a world of cultural and linguistic expressions that will voice their feelings. They never worry about what their families think of their children who can't speak the ``mother tongue.'' They never lose sleep worrying whether they're making a mistake by insisting that their children understand a language and culture that they can only visit, but never belong to.

But I worry about it a lot. And I try to seek answers in my own experience, my own belief that, by retaining my Spanish and my ties to the Puerto Rican community, I've enriched my life and that of the people around me.

I've become that strange hybrid, a bilingual, bicultural person, able to move from one culture to the other without too much shock. I've become comfortable with my birthright as an American citizen, but one born in Puerto Rico, a Latin American country. And people have stopped asking me what language I think in. But the other day, just as I was kissing him goodnight, Lucas whispered in my ear: ``Mama, what language do you dream in?''