Raising Gabi: Bilingualism in Puerto Rico


Enseñame,” I said to Gabi, my almost 3-year old daughter, after she tried to say something in Spanish but, for the life of me, I failed to understand. She grabbed the edge of my shirt, pulled me next to the cabinet, and pointed at the row of baby dresses. “Traaaa-jeee… Traaaaa-jeeee,” she let the syllables slide slow and deliberate, obviously wondering why I cannot connect traje with clothes that princesses wear.

You see, Gabi has been around many places. In almost three years of her existence on earth, she has travelled the span of the Pacific and Atlantic, going wherever the fate of her parents went. For every mileage she took, she crossed boundaries. She was born in Cebu, a central island in the Philippines, and for the most part grew up with Cebuano speakers. At about a year old, she left for the continental US with Carla, her mother, and thus was exposed to English speakers. Several months after that, she moved to Puerto Rico, immersing herself in the Boricuan traditions of her mother’s side; eventually, she gained a modicum of proficiency in Spanish, some English gibberish, and no Cebuano. Later on, I joined them in Puerto Rico, bringing with me a spoonful of Castilian nouns, a legacy of a 12-unit academic credit and three centuries of Spanish colonization.

Unlike Puerto Rico where Spanish is the lingua franca, the Spanish conquistadores were uninterested in spreading their language in the Philippines. According to Gonzalez (1998:495),

In the Philippines during the evangelisation period under the Spanish religious orders beginning with the arrival of Legazpi in l565, the strategy of the Spanish religious orders was not for the locals to learn Spanish but for the Spanish-speaking missionaries to learn the local languages, which they did with impressive success…In spite of repeated instructions from the Crown on teaching the natives the Spanish language, there was only a little compliance. Instead the friars using common sense, kept employing the local languages, so much so that in the period of intense nationalism in the nineteenth century, the failure of the Spanish friars to teach Spanish was used by some of the ilustrados (Filipinos educated in Spain) as a reason to accuse the friars of deliberately keeping Spanish away from the natives so as to prevent them from advancing themselves.

As a result of our colonial encounters, what we have is a hodgepodge of Spanish words with a dash of Cebuano and English, all structured within a Cebuano grammatical base. For example, Como estas tu? (How are you?) is kumusta ka in Cebuano. In many cases, words from three different languages often coexist in a sentence, like in the case of Wa na koy amor sa akong boyfriend! (I don’t love my boyfriend anymore!); amor being Spanish and the rest is in Cebuano (except for boyfriend, which is, of course, English). Some words are Spanish in origin but the meaning is reconfigured into the local experience. Salida in Spanish means “exit” but for Cebuanos, salida translates as movie. When driving, Cebuanos say de silla (literal Spanish: “of the chair”) to denote left and de mano (literal Spanish: “of the hand”) for right.

What further complicates the language divide between me and my daughter is the kind of Spanish spoken in Puerto Rico. This Spanish is fast-paced, as rapid as the staccato of bullets and as frenetic as salsa. Phrases and words are shortened; letters are switched or unpronounced. Puerto Ricans substitute /r/ for /l/, so jugar (to play) is pronounced jugal. They also do not say /n/ much and use /ng/ instead. So, my partner’s relatives call me Bong instead of Bonn. Also, if the /s/ is at the end of the word, they omit it and replace /s/ with a guttural /h/. Like many countries of Latin America and parts of Spain, /ll/ and /y/ is pronounced here as /j/, so relleno (stuffed) is re/j/eno and yautia (a kind of yam) is /j/autia. They also have words that are English in origin, like zafacon, shortened version for safety container (trash bin). At home, one can hear words in Cebuano, English, and Spanish. Oftentimes, I speak to Gabi in English with a few Spanish phrases and gestures to drive home a point. When all else fails, I ask her mom to translate for me.

What I fear about Gabi growing up bilingual is the warning posed by some researchers that bilingual children need “at least five to six years of school attendance…to reach the level of his monolingual schoolmates” (Cummins 1984 cited in Tzivinikou 2004: 468). An early author on bilingualism, Adler (1977:4 quoted in Baker 2001:17) even went further by suggesting that the bilingual child has “his standards split, he becomes more inarticulate than one would expect of one who can express himself in two languages, his emotions are more instinctive, in short, bilingualism can lead to a split personality and, at worst, to schizophrenia.”

The Language Enhancing the Achievement of Pasifika (LEAP) of the New Zealand Ministry of Education (NZME) however dismisses these conclusions. LEAP maintains that early studies on bilingualism are hindered by methodological issues. According to the LEAP (see http://leap.tki.org.nz retrieved: 2010), the

“context was never properly taken into account. (M)any of the bilingual students sampled were in subtractive bilingual environments and this, not their bilingualism, may have placed them at a disadvantage. Furthermore, there was no proper matching. To compare the cognitive ability of a group of bilingual children with monolingual students requires that the two groups be equal in all other respects (for example, socioeconomic status, gender, age, type of school attended, and urban/rural contexts). This did not occur, and these other factors ‘confounded’ the results.”

Using Jim Cummins’ common underlying proficiency (CUP) model, LEAP posits that “bilingualism and multilingualism are possible because people have the capacity to easily store two or more languages. People can also function in two or more languages with relative ease.” And it is not only LEAP that extols the merits of bilingualism. No less than the Linguistic Society of America argues that “bilingualism isn’t a danger either to the English language or to the bilingual speakers themselves. On the contrary, there are many advantages to bilingualism, both for the individual and for the society as a whole” (Birner, retrieved: 2010).

Going back to Gabi, we know she has been absorbing a lot of words. In the near future, she will be adept in the nuances of English, Spanish, and Cebuano. Who knows she might even decide to learn a few more languages on her own as she gets older. But right now, in this cacophony of linguistic traditions at home, sometimes that tiny palm gripping my finger says it all.


Baker, Colin. Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 3rd ed. Multilingual Matters, Clevedon. 2001

Birner, Betty. Bilingualism. Retrieved: January 8, 2010 http://www.lsadc.org/info/pdf_files/Bilingual.pdf

Gonzalez, Andrew “The Language Planning Situation in the Philippines” (PDF). Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 1998: 19 (5, 6).

Tzivinikou, Soteria. Development of Speech Problems and Bilingualism: The Difficulties of Identification in International Education Journal 2004: Vol 5, No 4.

Gonzalez, A. (1998). The Language Planning Situation in the Philippines Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 19 (5), 487-525 DOI: 10.1080/01434639808666365

Language Enhancing the Achievements of Pasifika. 8 January 2010. http://leap.tki.org.nz


6 thoughts on “Raising Gabi: Bilingualism in Puerto Rico

  1. Bonn:
    Really great story about Gabriela. Maybe someday me and my Rafael will be able to meet her (and I can see you two again as well). I miss you guys!

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