Bilingualism and the missing global connection

Language-wise, some might consider my son really lucky. He has two parents who believe in adopting both English and Spanish as languages that he needs to get by. We tend to use Spanish and English interchangeably, depending on our level of exhaustion and exposure to friends and relatives. He gets English when we wish him […]

Language-wise, some might consider my son really lucky. He has two parents who believe in adopting both English and Spanish as languages that he needs to get by. We tend to use Spanish and English interchangeably, depending on our level of exhaustion and exposure to friends and relatives. He gets English when we wish him a good morning, and Spanish when we have to change him or get him to sleep. We don’t differentiate much in our tone when we use both languages, and he seems to understand compliments paid to him readily in both as well. His mother and father both have Latino descent, and have strong connections to their Spanish-dominant mothers.

In no way do we consciously consider the ramifications of raising a child with two languages in terms of his intelligence or market value as an employee. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee of The New York Times, however, still thinks we’re on the right track. Peep the excerpt:

They were not wrong about the interference: there is ample evidence that in a bilingual’s brain both language systems are active even when he is using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other. But this interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.

While we should always have a skeptical eye towards new research, here’s hoping this movement towards bilingual education doesn’t die the way the movement towards the metric system. (As a math teacher, I’m still annoyed at having to use inches instead of centimeters.) At this point in education, we’ve only had a passing fancy with other languages. Spanish, French, German, and Italian seem to dominate the foreign language category, but how many people actually learn these languages in their 45-minute classes? For instance, I have friends who took Spanish language classes in high school who can tell me what “frio” and “hola” mean, but can’t ask me what my name is in Spanish without sounding like they’re talking about llamas. (“Como se llama?” is the operative phrase here.)

I wonder if we can push for some sort of foreign language immersion for all of our students.

We can talk about the competitive advantages of having a diversified set of languages that our culture speaks. Our country still takes in millions of visitors a year, each with different languages and dialects we can’t grasp. Globally, our country stands at the low end of the spectrum with just English. Robust and popular as English is, we have yet to tap into the richness of actual literacy because of English’s limitations. Its heavy reliance on idioms and metaphor often conflates communication with others.

More importantly, because these individuals adopt another language, they instinctively connect with others more readily and might make them more empathetic as a result. We could use a little more empathy in schools. Alejandro will have over 60 countries accessible to him in language alone. Imagine how many people he can chat with, relate to, and build whole communities with, and yes, understand.

Related categories: