Fned started a group blog called Bilingualism in Expat Couples which I read with interest. I also read Minshaps' post on the subject Bilingualism and it's effect on Modern Family Life, suddenly this morning I found myself composing a post regarding growing up in a household with immigrant parents. This is something that I rarely do, compose posts before I ever sit down in front of my computer.
As you probably know my parents immigrated from Cuba, all of us kids were born in the United States and my parents are both naturalized citizens. When I was very young, I almost died of pneumonia and so my mother, my older sister and I lived in Cuba for a while so I could recuperate my health. I am pretty sure that I learned to talk that year, so Spanish was probably my first language. When I was well enough we returned to the USA.
When my older sister entered kindergarten or was about to do so, a well meaning friend of my mother's convinced her that she should stop speaking Spanish to us at home. There had been a study of immigrant children and it was found that children that entered school speaking another language were at a severe disadvantage. My mother then stopped speaking Spanish to us. What she confided to me later is that she didn't realize that the article was referring to children of parents who did not speak English. My parents continued to use Spanish between themselves on occasion but our household became a primarily English speaking one.
After both my brothers were born, my paternal grandmother died. My parents invited my beloved Abuelo Pepe to come and live with us. Abuelo Pepe's English was minimal. Spanish returned to our household with my older sister and myself being the most fluent and the boys the least. It was common for us to reply to Spanish in English and not think anything about it.
When I was 8 we moved to California, and in the 6th grade Spanish was introduced to the curriculum. I remember it basically being memorization of inane dialogue, I learned 2 new words albóndigas and imán, which was the dog's name. I took Spanish in 7th,8th and 9th grades and Latin in 10th.
When I entered Junior College I took Spanish through the intermediate level. After the JC, I went to the State College as an art major. I remember deciding to take a class in Spanish Poetry because I thought it was a shame that I wasn't more literate in Spanish and toying with the idea of a minor in Spanish. I wandered into the Spanish department and requested an add card for the class. This gentleman who seemed in charge said that he couldn't give me one, because he didn't know me. Therefore I wasn't approved for the class. I was very ignorant about how colleges were run and a bit insulted. I showed him my signed form which approved me for the class. He got indignant and demanded to know who had signed my form. I was new and a bit flip, so I said "some one in the art department. I am eligible to take the class, the prerequisite is intermediate Spanish. I took that at the JC." This man looked at me and proclaimed that I would be unable to understand the Spanish. I asked him in a disrespectful tone "Just who are you?" It turns out that he was the head of the department. "Creo que me español debe ser suficiente para tomar esta clase. Acabo de regresar de una vacación en Miami y San Juan visitando mi familia y pase dos semanas sin hablar ingles". I would love to say that I went on to take the class and passed with flying colours, but two weeks into the school year I was offered a promotion at work. I took the promotion which required me moving to southern California. I meant to return to college and I eventually did but I have never taken Spanish again.
When I moved to Mérida, I was convinced that I was bilingual. What I quickly realized is that my Spanish has holes in it. I can discuss cilantro and tomatoes until the cows come home but other things seem to escape me. After four years I am comfortable switching back and forth.
I had a couple of interesting things happen to me when we took our little trip on the Ruta Puuc. When I was checking us out of the hotel, the clerk asked me if I was from Peru or some other South American country. I was bemused and answered no I am Estadounidense. He said that he thought that I had maybe lived a long time in the USA and married an American. I replied that my parents are originally from Cuba but I am Estadounidense.
Later that day, we stopped at a roadside store to buy some water. They had liters and half-liters, I asked Husband which he preferred. The proprietor asked me where I was from. As usual I answered Mérida.
"Ah," she said"and so you are married to a Gringo?"
Which is more interesting than the puzzled "you aren't from around here?" that I often get when I speak Spanish.