Bonding through Language
copyright 2002
by Susana Maria Rosende

My mother and us three older kids: brother Al, sister Lily, and me (circa 1965)

As a child growing up in the 1960's melting-pot neighborhood of Elmhurst in Queens, New York, I had the unshakable conviction that every human being was bilingual. One language was reserved for the privacy of one's home (in my case, Cuban Spanish), while the other --English-- was spoken with the rest of society. This attitude prevailed among my peers, first and second generation Americans with their own "private" languages --Spanish, Polish, Italian, Hebrew, or Japanese-- and English, our common tongue, which we had learned virtually through osmosis.

It was English that we heard on our Saturday morning "Bugs Bunny Cartoons" and on the "Ed Sullivan Show." It was English that was spoken by the beloved Mr. Softee ice cream truck driver and the revered soft pretzel vendor on the corner. It was also English that emitted from the lips of the magical Santa Claus at the Macy's toy department, as we sat on his lap for our Christmas photos. By Kindergarten, we had mastered the language, while many of our immigrant parents were struggling through "English as a Second Language" night classes.

The English language reflected our childhood realities at school and on the playground. Our ethnic tongues, increasingly relegated to the status of second language, bound us to the realities of our heritage, and reflected a distant culture our parents struggled fiercely to preserve. One language tied us to our past, while English connected us to our future.

By the 1970's, my family had relocated to then-all-American, middle class Willingboro, New Jersey, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Here there were no more "private" foreign languages, except for my family's, and a neighbor's occasional visiting grandparent. Still, there were "code" languages inherent to every sub-group: the jargon of the businessmen spoken by the fathers at the neighborhood block parties; the choppy-intuitive exchange of the young housewives accustomed to having their telephone conversations interrupted by their pre-school children; and the slang adopted by us teenagers, our own private language, where "far out" and "cool" meant "great!" and "bad" meant "good."

(Brian and Joey with their "Abuelos" -- grandparents -- in 1994)

Today, my parents speak to my nine and 16-year- old sons in both Spanish and English. More often than not, my boys respond in English. Yet they are gradually learning the language of my childhood--as if by osmosis--as they absorb the conversations of their loving grandparents.

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