Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Language Race

Oh the exquisite minutiae a yuppie parent must deal with on a daily basis! For Christmas, I bought a language video for the Duchess (because Daily Candy was offering a 25% off deal, and you can't afford not to buy it, right?).  But with 10 languages to choose from, where to start?

This is a longstanding question that I have had with my yuppie peers ever since the Duchess was born (I did not worry about starting her on a foreign language in utero - I can only worry about so many things at once). 

Languages are definitely a trend now, but how things have changed.  Years ago, everyone wanted their children to learn French (and if you send your children to certain public schools in Milton, MA, they will be immersed in it).  Spanish seems to be the equivalent now.  But some moms are more subtle, interested in languages that are hard for English-speakers to pick up later in life.

Chinese is popular.  I can relate - my cousin married a Chinese girl and he's over there taking Mandarin lessons. Even though he is a super-smarty pants, it's slow going.  "You can always learn Spanish," concluded one mommy friend, "But you only have until age five to get the sounds right in Mandarin." 

Another mommy said to me, quite sincerely, "I am putting her in Chinese immersion because I want her to be able to go wherever she wants to go," meaning in the future, she believes that Chinese will be a key language and knowing it will help her be successful.

Indeed, whenever the topic comes up, sometimes I feel like I am playing mommy poker:

"Spanish-speaking nanny," I imagine one mommy saying, laying down a card with a perfectly manicured hand.

"I will see your Spanish-speaking nanny, and raise you a Chinese immersion," says another mommy, with her diamond ring sparkling in the light.

Then my trump card: "I will see your Chinese immersion, and raise you a Montessori with exposure to Spanish and Arabic! Call!" I say, sweeping the table.

Ironically, poorer kids born in parts of town with lots of immigrants naturally learn English and other languages right out of the box.  But many people are like me - descended from immigrants who insisted that their children (my parents) learn and speak only English, with the result that both my parents sort of understand Italian and my dad can kind of speak it, but nobody bothered to teach me the language of my forebears. And anyway, the thing about Italian is that it is probably the most beautiful language in the world, but it isn't the most practical language to learn. (Which is probably why they Looooove it so much when you try to speak Italian in Italy.)

We all want our kids to be successful, of course, which is why this makes me so stressed out. Making this harder is the fact that I suspect a lot of people are just going with these languages because of their expectation that these languages will be important 20 years in the future (and not because they are so interested necessarily in the culture or literature of that particular society).

When I was in high school (which was - gulp! - 20 years ago), the really sharp kids, the ones who were going places and getting into Ivy League schools, those kids went to a local college to learn Russian and Japanese (the former for foreign-policy types, the latter for business types).*

Will Chinese be the Japanese of the future? That is to say, will the Chinese economy be as important and robust as we think it will be now, or will it crash and burn like the Japanese economy did during the "lost decade" of the 1990s?  That is the big question.

I've decided to sidestep the question and go with the Russian of the future: Arabic. I think that there will always be trouble in that part of the world, and understanding the language and culture will almost certainly be useful. Does the fact that I love spy novels and the like play into this? Maybe a little bit. 

The Duchess's school offers weekly Arabic classes, so I went ahead and bought an Arabic language video with the Daily Candy deal.  Will she learn those sounds since I'm exposing her to it when she is young? Will it matter? Will another language be the Chinese of today? I have no idea. But at 25% off, I guess I can afford to be wrong.

*Naturally, I chose German, which actually, had I been better at it, would have turned out to be useful had I been involved with finance and the Euro.  Es tut mir leid, dass ich kein gut Deutsch sprechen kann.

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