72. Speaking in Tongues

Urban Art, San Juan, Puerto Rico ©2016 Ronald C. Flores-Gunkle

Children seem to learn languages as easily as they learn to like ice cream. I remember taking our two very young children to Montreal, turning on the TV in our hotel room, and their effortless joy in watching television in French — a language they had never heard.

Time and time again I’d see monolingual children of relatives playing with children who speak no Spanish and in a short time communicating with them. My granddaughter, bilingual in Spanish and English, was chattering away with friends in German just weeks after her family moved to Munich.

It is not so easy for an adult to learn a second language. There is a scientific explanation for this. In simplistic terms, a part of the brain that processes language is flexible up to a certain age, some time in the early teens. After that it still possible to acquire another language (or several) but it not quite as easy.

The key is motivation and opportunity. My son-in-law — bilingual in Spanish and English since childhood — works for an airlines. His salary and assignments depend on his mastery of the language of the place he wants to work. In quick succession (and after serious effort) he learned French, then Portuguese, then Italian — and passed fluency exams in each language with flying colors.

I was raised in a household that spoke only English. Although my father spoke a dialect of German, Pennsylvania Dutch, he never tried to teach his children. The only thing I learned was how to curse in that language — from listening to him!

My wife was raised in a household that spoke only Spanish. Her motivation and opportunity came when she decided to study in New York. She moved there from Puerto Rico a year before enrolling in college and immersed herself in English. She completed a business degree there with excellent grades and landed a job with a major insurance agency in Manhattan.

My own journey to mastery of Spanish is too long for this post, but it, too was a combination of motivation and opportunity — but more of that to come.

My wife and I were both bilingual in Spanish and English when our children were born. When faced with the question of what language to use with them, I went to the experts. At the time I was a graduate student at Penn State and our children were just learning to talk. I asked the specialists in bilingualism for their recommendations.

They said that it was not important which language was used with the children as long as the use was consistent. In other words to always speak Spanish at home and English outside the home (or vice versa when in Puerto Rico). Or one parent always speak Spanish and the other English.

If you think about it, that is what usually happens naturally. Parents arrive in a country that speaks a language not their own generally send their kids to school in the new language, they play in the new language, but inside the house the speak their native language.

It is what we did and our children learned both languages and speak them effortlessly. They also thanked us profusely for doing that when they experienced other kids struggling with English in school in Puerto Rico.

I don’t believe there is any trick to learning a second language and I don’t really think that some people are just better at it than others. If a three year old can speak Parsi, Greek, Swahili, Chinese or English, given the motivation and the opportunity anyone can. It is easier for a child, harder for an adult, but possible for anyone who truly wants to speak in a tongue not their own.


This topic is continued in 73. Becoming Bilingual and 74. Total Immersion.

“Querer es poder.” (“Where there is a will, there is a way.”) This is part of my saga of how I met my self-set goal to acquire a new language and culture.