I must fess up here: English is my second language. I grew up in Israel, and while it helped to have a mother who was American and gave me an American citizenship, my mother did not speak English to me. Except for the times she was so angry at me and English phrases got thrown in, it was Hebrew at home, on the street, and at school.
School was also where I learned English, beginning in fifth grade. I still remember some oddities from my formal introduction to the language, such as thinking the word young meant old. Or that the word stupid meant lazy. These could be remnants of hearing my mother’s raging and my not quite understanding, or some other muddle I no longer have conscious access to.
America- the land of dreams. I came to live in the country I did not know, but of which I was a citizen, when I was in my late teens. I sounded fluent and had good pronunciation, gratis of having an American parent. But my command of the written language was rather poor. You've heard of “high-school English?” That was about it.
Even before the language changeover, I was a writer. I had a short story published in Hebrew while still in high-school. Making the language switch was harder for writing than for passive understanding or casual speaking. I spent some years in transition- on the road between two languages, two sensibilities, two worlds.
I was becoming more of one and less of the other, but wasn't fully in either. I was a storyteller. I just didn't have, you know, the words. Words, sentences, paragraphs. The building blocks. I don’t know when I attained the audacity to think that I had these tools of my second language and could use them effectively.
I read a NewYork Times (book section) discussion of published writers whose first language was not English. They all felt that, for all their challenges, they had something special to offer not in spite of but because of it. I wouldn't go that far, but then- I am not as successful as they are. I know that having lived elsewhere, (really lived and been a part of, not just stationed in or visiting) does give storytellers something natives don’t have. On the other hand, natives have something we never will- that deep and unwavering connection, psychically and linguistically, to their home base. So it’s a tie.
They say you raise your own kids either exactly as you were raised, or in reaction to it. I chose not to raise mine bilingual, because, to me, a foot in two worlds was not an advantage. I’m not right or wrong about this; it’s just my experience.
Words/sentences/paragraphs are just a part of this; it’s a mindset. I wanted my kids to be grounded and strongly identified. I did not want them to do the nervous dance I jitterbugged on tippy-toes, sometimes landing with a thud, barely navigating just-so between the arenas of a first and second language.
DS is now a Linguistics major, while DD excelled in Latin, French, and took up Italian on her own. But when they write stories, there’s little doubt that English it is, and Americans they are.