Wednesday, February 20, 2013

When one plus one is more than two

Recently a friend of mine learned that our nanny spoke to the dude and little miss in Portuguese.  She seemed skeptical: “It will be interesting if they remember any of it when they are older.”  I replied, “you know, that’s not the point.”  She looked at me quizzically.
            In a nation where the vast majority of people are monolingual English speakers—and where English is currently the world’s lingua franca--it can be hard for many Americans to understand the benefits of learning other languages than English.  Why bother, if wherever you travel in the world, you expect to find someone who speaks English?  But that would assume a utilitarian need to justify learning anything.  And sure, now suddenly bilingualism is currently all the rage, especially with growing scientific evidence that it is good for the brain—promoting flexibility in learning and verbal skills and even stalling cognitive decline.  But to justify learning a second (or even third, in my children’s case) language as a way to exercise the brain is also pretty utilitarian, in my opinion.
            For me, becoming bilingual gives children a sense of the world as bigger than their homeland.  What’s interesting is that the majority of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual. In a survey conducted by the European Commission in 2006, 56 percent of respondents reported being able to speak in a language other than their mother tongue.  Compare this to our monolingual States, where only a fifth of Americans report speaking more than one language (BTW, this is an improvement from the past), and where until recently, bilingual education in schools was seen as radical and even un-American. America is a great country, but what I’d like my children to have is an appreciation of other cultures that isn’t America-centric (or worse yet, rooted in American exceptionalism)—countries not just as tourist destinations, but as places that others call their home, just as we call the US ours.
             I remember going to visit France for the first time as a young teen; after a month there with my family friends watching French TV, eating French food, listening to French music…I was shaken out of my adolescent egocentrism. I remember walking in Paris one day:  the prototypical overweight, badly dressed American tourist  (T-shirt, shorts, tennis shoes, and white socks pulled up to the knees) came up to me and asked, “Where’s the McDonalds?” I cringed—this is how Parisians see us Americans, as ignorant, uncultured, and uninterested in learning anything new, down to the core.  How sad for us as a country, I thought.
            To know in abstract that other cultures exist out there, different from our own …that’s one superficial level of understanding.  To appreciate that other cultures hold their customs, traditions and holidays as important as we hold ours…that’s an entirely a different, deeper understanding, one that requires stepping out of a self-centered, insular point of view.  And learning (maybe even struggling?) with a different language forces us out of our comfort zone, putting ourselves figuratively in others' shoes.
            Multiculturalism sadly has become an over-used, politically-correct catchphrase.  And in truth, a little knowledge can also be dangerous, leading us equally in paths of ignorance.  But I honestly believe that when the dude and little miss have conversations with our nanny in Portuguese or with me in Vietnamese, they are learning more than just words.  They are learning about the plurality of human expression.  And with that, the door to diversity, respect, and understanding (not just tolerance, mind you) opens a just a little bit wider.

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