Born and raised in Argentina, but having spent my adult life in the United States, I am fluent in English and Spanish. I always thought that speaking more than one language was beneficial, so when I had a daughter, I wanted her to learn both of my languages. Since she was bound to learn English from her teachers and peers, I chose to speak Spanish with her. She grew up bilingual, and decades later, she is now raising a bilingual child of her own.
I have often wondered why so many Americans with parents or grandparents who spoke another language never learned a word of it. When a friend of mine pointed out that, in her family, the first generation of immigrants was focused on fitting in, I realized that the perceived practical value of a language is a crucial factor for learning it. Recently arrived immigrant groups are usually poor, not well connected and frequently shunned. With language as the main identifier of one’s group, the more quickly one learns English, the sooner this identifier goes away. Foreign languages in this context may be perceived as liabilities.
The first time I noticed a child in the United States who spoke Spanish but pretended he didn’t, I was baffled. But if you were a Latino child in my poor, Northeast Connecticut community, speaking Spanish may have given you nothing but grief. And so, ironically, the most disadvantaged become less likely to take advantage of the rich, low-hanging fruit of knowing an additional language that eventually may give them an edge in the workplace. In a global economy, a foreign language is a marketable skill that may tip the scale in a competitive situation.
In my town, teachers and school administrators do their best to support bilingualism, but with prejudice and discrimination entrenched, speaking Spanish is not perceived by many of their students as helpful. Unintentionally, these students’ families may support this stance through their own negative experiences within their larger communities. All these elements present emotional barriers to developing and maintaining bilingualism. For successful learning, this negative perception must be addressed with every child who has the opportunity to learn a language other than English from a young age.
When I’m out with my young granddaughter, we speak Spanish. The wide range of responses I sense from strangers around us spans from sheer delight to harsh judgment. At times, even I become self-conscious enough to switch languages, as if needing to prove that we can speak English, that we are home. Children may not be able to understand and articulate these subtleties, but they certainly notice and internalize them. Their perceptions of others’ reactions will be a factor in their motivation to learn.
What can teachers do to counteract these internalized negative perceptions to promote the learning of languages? The first step is to recognize that these perceptions exist and that children want to be “cool” among their peers. Persistently uncover and demonstrate the benefits of speaking additional languages, and consider a variety of strategies to do so.
Field trips and travel to areas where different languages are spoken may not be possible for school systems with limited resources, but connecting with children in other countries using technology may be quite easy. To provide just one example, linking with a “sister classroom” in Senegal may offer motivation to communicate in French via Skype, as well as endless opportunities to enrich curricula in other areas, such as geography, biology, history and anthropology.
The use of bilingual books could also be expanded. Bilingual books in schools help children make linguistic connections between languages. In children’s homes, bilingual books allow every family member (a grandma who may not speak English or a young uncle who doesn’t know Spanish) to share the same story. These books benefit adults in the home, too, by improving their own language skills and communication competence.
Getting bilingual authors to read bilingual books in schools or bringing in other bilingual role models for special topics clearly illustrates to children that bilingual skills are valuable. For some students, the experience of meeting bilingual professionals, entertainers, artists or entrepreneurs may highlight the positive aspects of bilingualism and provide motivation to develop and maintain it.
In spite of recent anxiety about immigration and global connectivity, people will continue to travel and interact with the rest of the world. While there always will be challenges to cultural understanding, language doesn’t need to be one of them. We need to prepare children to cope with a rapidly changing environment. Improving their learning of languages is a good start.
Berlin writes bilingual children’s books and essay collections. Learn about her work at deliaberlin.com.