Archive for September, 2011

The power of a bilingual brain

Friday, September 16th, 2011

amsterdam

I’ve been an English language learner since I was 6 years old, first in my native Argentina and then as a young adult in the United States. I studied the language in an academic environment, thus my almost perfect fluency. “Almost” being the operative word here.

A few years ago when I began my career as a writer and public speaker, I decided to publicly acknowledge that I am prepositionally challenged. That’s right. On and in – two apparently innocuous monosyllables—have been at the forefront of my ongoing tango with English.

My friend and personal editor, Susan Landon (by now, my not-so-secret weapon), has had the biggest belly laughs and hair pulling episodes while editing my blogs, columns, books and anything else I throw her way. And, as I believe in the literary adage “show, don’t tell,” here is one of our latest exchanges to help you fully appreciate my grammatical handicap.

I had sent Susan a new Op-Ed, which I had originally entitled: “Black Woman on the Golf Course.” (Admittedly, I had previously checked via phone with her that it was “on the golf course.”) My subject line, however, read: “Black woman in the golf course.”

Susan – It’s ON the golf course!!!!
Me – Sorry, wrong subject line but the title is correct. Did you notice I used your favorite word “eschew”?
Susan – Yes, I noticed “eschew” and I wondered where on (not IN) earth that came from!! You are really stretching your wings. :-)
Me – You are such a great influence in me!
Susan – It’s: influence ON me!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I can’t catch a break.

In my defense (and the defense of many second language learners!) there’s little rhyme or reason for the grammatical rules of these two little devils. You wait in line at the store but you’re online on the Internet. Someone is on your side but in your mind. They are on your team but in your heart. Something is on TV, on the radio and on a website, but it’s in a book. It’s on a continent but in a country; in Manhattan but on Long Island. Come on! (Or should I go with “Come in, take a seat. Experience life as a second language learner!”)

Over the years, I have repeatedly studied the many rules that regulate prepositions trying to discover the patterns that elude me to no avail. So, I decided to settle for the second best thing besides speaking prepositionally perfect English: Knowing that being a frequent user of both Spanish and English delays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, makes me better at multitasking, and allows me to be keenly aware of what’s important and what’s not at every moment.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Ellen Bialystok, a cognitive neuroscientist who has spent 40 years learning about how bilingualism sharpens the mind, says that, according to her research, 5- and 6- year-olds who are bilingual “manifest a cognitive system with the ability to attend to important information and ignore the less important.” How does that work? Dr. Bialystok explains: “There’s a system in your brain, the executive control system. It’s a general manager. Its job is to keep you focused on what’s relevant, while ignoring distractions. It’s what makes it possible for you to hold two different things in your mind at one time and switch between them. If you have two languages and you use them regularly, the way the brain’s networks work is that every time you speak, both languages pop up and the executive control system has to sort through everything and attend to what’s relevant in the moment. Therefore the bilinguals use that system more, and it’s that regular use that makes that system more efficient.”

After reading this interview a few months ago, I felt a little bit better about my failures and began to plot a strategy. I was thinking of just mumbling something that sounds in-between on/in something like… “en” (which is the preposition we use in Spanish for both “in and on”) so nobody can tell which preposition I’m using. I was getting ready to start using my new solution when Susan called me out on doing something similar with two other pairs of words.

Susan – “Do you know the difference between ‘run’ and ‘ran’ and between ‘hang out’ and ‘hung out’? Because you always seem to mumble them and I always wonder which one you meant. I’m starting to think that you just don’t know which one is which.”

Me – “I just go with the same pronunciation for both because I can’t hear the difference between the present and the past tense and I can’t be bothered.”

Susan – “Well, that’s like me saying ‘ella fui a su casa’ instead of ‘ella fue a su casa’ and telling you I can’t be bothered,” she said using as an example the wrong conjugation of the verb “to go” in Spanish. Now that got my attention.

So, I’ve decided to practice my pronunciation of present and past tense for these two verbs because I believe the tense of the verb is often critical to understanding the meaning of what you’re saying.

But when it comes to on/in, I’ll let that slide in support of Dr. Bialystok’s research. It’s now obvious to me that my bilingual brain doesn’t identify those two as relevant information.

This column has appeared on Fox News Latino and on the Huffington Post.

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Do Latinos Help Other Latinos as Much as They Could?

Sunday, September 4th, 2011

shut-up

A frequent complaint I hear from Latinos trying to break into power circles is that other Latinos who are already there don’t extend a helping hand. I’ve seen it myself. And if you wonder, like I do, why there aren’t more visible Latino leaders or why our share of power is nowhere near the percentage of the Latino population in this country, part of the answer might lie in the lack of a helping Latino hand.

As a media contributor at national and local levels, I have spent the last few years pursuing opportunities in English media, because I believe that in order to expand my message and influence, I need to move beyond talking to an audience which has a similar background to my own. Otherwise, I’m just preaching to the choir instead of raising awareness in a segment of the population that may not understand a Latino perspective.

Unfortunately, like most of you, I have often heard renowned Latinos give public speeches about the importance of pulling up those who follow in their footsteps—then seen them turn around and cut the rope when they are asked for help. A few days ago, I ran into one of those well positioned Latinos who I had personally heard saying that more diversity was needed in the newsroom. Only a few days earlier I had sent him an email asking for help introducing me to one of his producers and he had responded with a suggestion that was not particularly helpful. When we met, he said ‘hello’ from a distance of only five feet and then turned and walked away as I was opening my mouth to follow up on our email exchange. The introduction I was hoping for wasn’t going to happen.

I know the world doesn’t revolve around me and my agenda. That people are protective of their connections and their turf. That many are overworked, understaffed and underpaid. That most high ranking Latinos receive an overwhelming amount of requests that they cannot possibly fulfill, and that these requests often come from people who are not the right candidates for the help they are seeking.

But nobody builds a successful career alone. No matter how smart you are, all successful careers are built upon a large, strong network, and with the help of sponsors who at some point champion you as the right candidate for that awesome opportunity. So, why do people find it so hard to help others who are respected professionals in their fields when they reach the pinnacle of their careers, and it’s within their power to do so? Why is it so difficult to put in a good word on behalf of a fellow professional with an impeccable reputation?

I can’t help question people’s motives. Whenever any one of us resists opening a door, we are shrinking the pie instead of expanding it for all of us. You may do it because you are one of very few Latinos in your company and you don’t want others to perceive you as an activist. You may do it because you don’t want your bosses to think your personal network is mainly Hispanic. You may do it because you fear that if other Latinos walk in they may take something away from you. Whatever the reason, in the end you are hurting yourself, too.

The truth is that if you have to protect yourself in such a way, it probably means you’re not as indispensable as you think. Or you are the “token Latino” in the wrong company and eventually they will get rid of you, too. Whatever the reasons for your protectionism, they are likely to backfire. In practical terms, you are putting up a stumbling block for all Hispanics trying to move into circles of power, something that in the end affects all of us. Because as long as we continue to have such poor representation at executive levels in the private and public sectors of this country, the Hispanic community will continue to be discounted. We don’t need one leader. We need many leaders who can carry the very diverse voices of this community.

So, while you’re busy making sure nobody else climbs the ladder next to you, you are missing the chance of a lifetime: to become the power broker for every Latino and Latina of high caliber. To create a legacy of leadership beyond your own and be remembered as someone who helped set the stage for a new conversation in this wonderful country of ours.

An earlier version of this column appeared on Fox News Latino on July 27, 2011 under a different title.