I'm excited about an NPR article called "Being bilingual may boost your brain power," but not because of what the article says about bilingual children having stronger executive control systems in their brains, making it easier for them to focus on what's relevant and block out irrelevant information. I'm excited because reading and re-reading this article finally gave me insight into my own dubious language abilities.
My parents' first language was Spanish, but mine was English. I was born in California in 1966 and my parents made sure that when my sister and I got to school, we'd be able to fluently communicate in English with the teachers. They did a great job.
But maybe they did it too well. My parents spoke Spanish to each other occasionally, but ours was an English-speaking household. My mother sometimes had me read from Spanish books and carefully taught me how to pronounce "tortilla" and "abuelita," so that I grew up with an excellent Spanish accent, but no ability to hold a conversation in it.
In high school I finally began to learn Spanish along with everyone else who'd always wished they could speak another language. My classmates assumed my good grades resulted from me being a native Spanish speaker, but that was dead wrong. I knew about three full sentences and several random words of Spanish before freshman year and that was it. I was learning everything right along with all the other English-speakers.
Besides those years of strictly academic Spanish, I have spoken it very little. Who would I speak it with? My world has always been white, English-dominated and in the American mainstream. Every school I've attended had a tiny number of Latinos, none of whom spoke Spanish (at least not in front of others). I'm an American with a typical American's need to speak other languages: zero. Like most Americans, I got my grades in Spanish class and never thought about those vocabulary words again.
So why can I still hold a conversation in it, decades after my last grammar quiz? Why do I always find it in my back pocket, ready to go, whenever I have no choice but to speak Spanish? If all I got was four years in high school, why was I (at the age of 44) so comfortable speaking Spanish for two weeks in South America last summer?
It's got to be the childhood I spent hearing my parents speak their native tongue, even though I had no idea what they were saying. Somehow, even though I swear I didn't know Spanish until I was 14, the language of my parents must have gotten into my baby brain, so that later when I began inserting the vocabulary and conjugations, it all fit right into some kind of predetermined cubby holes.
Is that possible? Can a language be programmed into you before you even know it? That's all I can figure since speaking a foreign language is a "use it or lose it" skill that I've kept even though I never use it. And with that assumption, I have thanked my parents for all the time they spent speaking Spanish around me, even if they weren't speaking it to me.