(Published in The Record of Hackensack, NJ. on September 1, 1995)
For the last several months, I have been feeling quite guilty about not speaking more Spanish to my 2 1/2-year-old daughter. This is the time, I know, when she is most capable of learning other languages. And after covering bilingualism issues for so many years, and being an advocate for bilingual education, having a monolingual child is just unacceptable.
Over the years, I've met many parents, and even educators, who have told me that the best way to develop a bilingual child is by speaking a foreign language at home during the child's preschool years — and leaving the English lessons for later. “When they get to school,” goes the advice, “they'll have to learn English anyway. So if they already speak another language when they get to school, they'll be bilingual for the rest of their lives.”
I know this is sound advice because I've seen it happen. But my wife doesn't speak Spanish and thus far my daughter, Lilia, is not listening to enough Spanish from her guilt-ridden father. If I had my way, she would be speaking only Spanish with the same ease that she now speaks only English.
But much to my surprise and outrage, according to a Texas court ruling, this means that I would have been abusing my daughter.
A judge overseeing a child-custody case in Amarillo, Texas, told a Mexican-American mother that speaking only Spanish constituted abuse of her 5-year-old daughter. The mother, Marta Laureano, speaks English fluently. She uses only Spanish at home because she wants her daughter, who is in kindergarten, to grow up bilingual.
“I am giving her an advantage that not everybody has,” she said.
Yet, equating lack of English proficiency with child abuse, State District Judge Samuel C. Kiser overstepped his authority when he told Laureano that she must also speak English to her daughter.
“If she starts first grade with the other children and cannot even speak the language that the teachers and the other children speak, and she's a full-blood American citizen, you're abusing that child and you're relegating her to the position of a housemaid,” Kiser said, according to a transcript of the hearing.
His words left many bilingual Americans torn about what they find more appalling: the judge's bigotry or his ignorance. The case illustrates the rampant misconceptions about bilingualism. Instead of seeing that Laureano's daughter would be at an advantage for being bilingual, Kiser determined that the child would grow up to be a housemaid because she didn't speak English in her preschool years.
Kiser led many Latinos to conclude that this is absolute proof that this country's state of xenophobia is at an all-time high. For years, those who feel threatened by foreign languages have been saying that we should not speak anything but English in public or in the workplace — a clear violation of the First Amendment.
“If you want to speak a foreign language, you should do it in your own home,” say those who are so insecure that they believe anything they don't understand must denigrate them.
By dictating what language Laureano should speak to her child at home, Kiser proved that even within the sanctity of our own homes, immigrants will always be persecuted by those who feel threatened by our growing presence in the United States.
He illustrates how far anti-immigrant sentiments have come and how frightening the future could be for my U.S.-born daughter — just because her parents want her to enjoy the benefits of bilingualism.
At my home, where three languages are spoken, Lilia will learn Spanish from her Cuban-American father and Farsi from her Iranian-American mother. Kiser's ignorance will not intimidate us, but remind us that the language lessons cannot wait another minute.