Ana Teresa Pérez-Leroux, a 38-year-old associate professor of Spanish and linguistics, is pulling dictionaries and grammar manuals off her office shelves and handing them to me. Galcismos, printed in Madrid, 1874. Manual de Gramatica Historica Española, 1949. Éstudeos Linguisticos: Hispano Americanos. Aged and dog-eared, the hardcovers have become soft and pliable like well-thumbed cookbooks or family bibles. She inherited the books from her grandfather, a lawyer and “self-taught polyglot” who was intrigued by the mechanisms of grammar and language.
What was a hobby for Grandfather Pérez is a full-fledged passion for Pérez-Leroux. The Santo Domingo native, who came to U of T in 1999, teaches in the department of Spanish and Portuguese, and researches child and adult language development. Her fascination with language can be traced back to a first-grade geography lesson about China. “The thing that stuck in my head was that the children spoke Chinese,” she says. “So I went home and said to my dad, ‘I feel bad for Chinese children because they think in Spanish, but need to learn Chinese to talk to their family.'”
Her language theories have since grown more sophisticated. After earning a licenciatura in French from the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo in 1983, Pérez-Leroux headed to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where she acquired an MA in Spanish and linguistics, and a doctorate in Hispanic linguistics. She has been an assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University and has worked as a French teacher, court interpreter, translator and research assistant.
Pérez-Leroux, who speaks four languages fluently, is also committed to breaking down prejudices surrounding bilingualism. “In the United States there is a lot of mistrust and misconception about bilinguals, so some parents think it’s harmful for children to be bilingual,” she says, noting a sad tendency for American immigrants not to pass their native language on to their children. At Pennsylvania State, she taught a class on the psychology, linguistics and sociology of bilingualism, discussing such issues as the fear that those who are bilingual are semi-adept at two languages and master of neither. “The problem comes from the image of the mind as a container. If your mind is a container, and you pour in English and Spanish, you don’t have enough room for a lot of English and a lot of Spanish,” she says. “People don’t think of the mind as an organ.”
During our conversation, Pérez-Leroux shows me photos of her two brown-eyed, dark-haired sons: Michel, 14, and Paul, five. It was Michel, she notes, who cemented her interest in child language research. As a graduate student, she would come home and conduct language experiments with the enthusiastic preschooler. Her research is complex, but she breaks it down easily: “I’m interested in examining all the little mechanics of grammar that children need to know.” And one of Pérez-Leroux’s favourite elements of her research is visiting local preschools and playing language games with the children. She uses two pint-sized, nattily dressed assistants – Groovy Girl dolls she’s named Mary and Suzy – to help children act out their interpretation of complex sentences.
As part of the university’s effort to help the humanities grow with the times, Pérez-Leroux has developed a Spanish course for native and heritage speakers, which will start in September. The first course at the university expressly for Spanish speakers, rather than foreign-language students, it recognizes the growing proportion of Hispanic students enrolling in the department, as well as their unique educational needs. Classes will cover such topics as writing skills, since a student who speaks Spanish fluently at home may not have had as much instruction in the mechanics of writing and reading.
A follow-up course for Spanish speakers may be in the future for Pérez-Leroux. She is also finishing a fourth-year textbook on Spanish syntax. Her drive and prolific output seem anchored to a philosophy of gratitude. “I think it’s really lucky that one can devote so much time to living the world of ideas,” she says. “Having come from a very, very poor country where people live the life of the mind with lots of personal sacrifice, I know how lucky I am that I can just do it.”