Starting A Lifelong Affair With Languages

Languages and cultures have been my lifelong passions. Maybe it is because I grew up in Southern California, amid Latino influences. In school, I heard Mexican-American students speaking Spanish. Downtown, I saw blocks of stores, all with signs in Spanish. Rich, wonderful smells permeated the air, and mariachi music poured out into the streets when restaurant doors opened. Inside, musicians strolled from table to table, dressed in the dashing black and silver of caballeros, strumming guitars and bowing violins with romantic finesse.

Maybe it is because my grandmother loved to take my sister and me to places like Chinatown in Los Angeles, where we would hear the timbre of spoken Mandarin and Cantonese, breathe spicy incense, taste exotic food with wooden chopsticks, and finger cool silks and paper fans in dark, mysterious shops. I remember dressing with care in delicious anticipation of these outings, knowing that we would be allowed to indulge our youthful curiosity while momentarily becoming part of the much envied, grownup world of travel and adventure.

Then there were summers spent with my father’s family in eastern New Mexico, proffering a good dose of south-of-the-border food, music, language, and festivities. My genealogy, overwhelmingly Western European, is infused with enough American Indian to render the pueblo ruins and archaeological digs we visited of special interest, as pieces of my personal ancestral history. I remember making my way through fragrant juniper and creosote bushes, stooping to pass through a tiny doorway in the side of a cliff, and entering the cool obscurity within. Dust motes danced like spirits up a shaft of sunlight through the chimney hold and out into the wide, eternal sky. Breezes whispered of the people who once lived here, of their talk, their fires, their work and dreams. This is part of who I am, I thought, feeling a thrill of connection with the past, the future, and all humankind.

One summer, my father’s maternal grandmother passed out copies of her research into our family tree, bringing to light French, Scottish, and English ancestors. Prompted by this revelation, I studied high school French and Spanish with a zeal that sparked awards and scholarship offers.

Guided by Passion

In time, I had children of my own. Like my parents and grandparents, I shared my love for other cultures with my little ones. Of course, we visited Indian ruins, ethnic museums and neighborhoods, savory restaurants, and aromatic shops. We also spoke in tongues–lots of them.

For me, learning the spoken words of a culture is like putting on multidimensional spectacles, or like looking through a prism and suddenly seeing an aura of colors invisible to the naked eye. The words and phrases lead not only to an appreciation of the culture that gave rise to them, but to a new appreciation of my own, as well as an enhanced sensitivity to environment, history, economics, and religious beliefs in general. And so my goal as a mother was to pass this on to my children–to maximize their understanding and acceptance of diversity, and to minimize any sense of fear, prejudice, and mindless rejection of things strange and different. My hopes were to encourage an open-minded attitude toward sharing ideas, and a clearer vision of the assets and liabilities that influence cooperation between individuals, communities, and nations.

I homeschooled my oldest five children from 1981 until 1990. We filled the house with signs in English, Spanish, and French. Index cards perched on chairs read: chair–silla–siege. Others hanging on walls read: wall–pared–mur. Everything was labeled: windows, furniture, kitchen items, clothing. Then, over a period of time, we developed a repertoire of sentences, such as Qui fait la vaisselle aujourd’hui? (Who does the dishes today?) and Vamonos al mercado (Let’s go to the store). In public, our multilingualism became a game. How could Suivez-moi! (Follow me!), Touche pas! (Don’t touch!), and Cuidado! (Look out!) be perceived as scolding or nagging, after all, when no one but us knew what I was saying?

When my children’s friends came to visit, my little ones responded with less whining if I said, “J’ai un petit travail pour toi” than if I informed them in plain English that I had a job for them to do. They would roll their eyes and translate, their pride in possessing uncommon knowledge outweighing their reluctance to abandon their play for the time being. Soon those who visited most often began to join in the fun. And older friends sometimes came for after-school help with their foreign language homework.

We had many amusing moments. Once, a visiting friend heard my children refer to me as mere (mother) and assumed they were calling me a horse. Another time, one of my sons invented a French pun: instead of saying de rien (you’re welcome), he took to saying derriere (rear end).

We searched libraries, bookstores, and catalogs for song tapes, story tapes, and videos in a variety of languages, and began building an audiovisual library. Soon, we had a collection ranging from French-dubbed Disney videos to classic films in French, and from regional Mexican folk songs to Cajun nursery rhymes. We filled shelves with books as well: Peter Rabbit in three laguages, The Little Prince in two, original French versions of the fairy tales “Beauty and the Beast” and “Sleeping Beauty,” children’s dictionaries in French and Spanish, and lots more.

Around the same time, I enrolled in French classes at the local community college. The professor, who quickly became a friend, was delighted to have my children accompany me to class. My usual companions were eight-year-old Joseph and four-year-old Jenny. As often as three times a week, they would sit quietly for over an hour, pencil and paper before them on their desks, listening to conversations in French (English was not uttered in class) and copying sentences from the blackboard. At the time, Jenny was also learning to write English! And while her French pronunciation was flawless, she was still having trouble with her English rs–one of the most difficult r sounds on the planet.

Building Bridges

As time went on, language became more than a merry pastime. When my oldest child Justin turned 14, he decided he wanted to “go to school” and take part in the social scene. Immediately, he began bringing home stories of racial tension and gang activities. One day, he mentioned that he and a Mexican-American student had been comparing notes on Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican celebration of the dead, which takes place on November 1. To Justin’s delight, he was complimented on his fluency in Spanish and knowledge of Mexican culture, and was told he was pretty OK for a white boy. To my delight, I began to realize that perhaps our years of immersion in language and culture could serve him well in mitigating some of the volatility present in today’s youth culture.

Eight years ago, a shocking and tragic event became an opportunity to explore another new language. My nephew Kyle lost his hearing soon after his first birthday. (Little did we know that four years later, his sister Dana would be born deaf.) Upon learning of Kyle’s hearing loss, I enrolled in sign language classes at the local community college and began teaching my children to sign as well. By the time Dana was born, they were not only fluent in sign language, but able to accept their cousin’s “condition” with a pragmatic optimism that spread throughout the family, diffusing grief and alleviating fears. These days, whenever our families gather, the children play together as happily and naturally as any children do. Moreover, my daughter Jaime spends time at school chatting in sign language with students who are hearing impaired.

The sign language classes inspired connecting links to others as well. Enrolled in the classes were a Black Muslim mother and her two daughters. I was intrigued by their long, flowing dresses and graceful head wraps. Naima, the mother, was a warm, wise woman with a rich and ready laugh. During class breaks, she taught me the Arabic words for hello, thank you, and goodbye. Months later, when a Lebanese family opened a market near my home, I could hardly wait to try my new words. Venturing into the market one day, I gathered my purchases, approached the cash register, and when the gentleman behind the counter turned to me, I greeted him in Arabic. Imagine my surprise when he grabbed my hand and covered it with kisses!

I quickly assured him that this was all the Arabic I knew. He replied that because his country was so torn and he was so homesick, he was delighted to hear a customer speak his language as if it were an everyday form of discourse.

Soon afterward, my teenage son Josh–a little embarrassed by my desire to explore foreign languages at every opportunity–accompanied me to the Lebanese market. As we stepped inside, he said, in a low voice, “Please, Mom, no Arabic today, OK?”

“OK, I promise,” I answered, with an innocent smile. “No Arabic.”

We took our groceries to the counter, and while the clerk was bagging the goods, I turned to Josh and said: “voila. C’est pour toi les apporter.” He rolled his eyes and picked up the sack, which he now knew was for him to carry out. An instant later, the clerk exclaimed, “Mais vous parlez francais!” (“You speak French!”)

The joke was definitely on me. Nevertheless, we spoke in French for several minutes. He explained that he had learned French in Lebanese schools from the time he was very young. He also explained that the man I had spoken to in Arabic a few days earlier was his father, and that yes, they would both be happy to teach me as much Arabic as I cared to learn whenever I was in their store.

I took them up on the offer, and made sure to bring my children along from time to time. My hope was that by cultivating relationships with people from Middle Eastern nations, in particular, I could expose my children to glimpses of something other than media images. News coverage of political events so often focuses on narrow and negative aspects of other cultures that I wanted them to see up close that people are–regardless of anyone’s biases–people. I wanted to plant seeds of respect and understanding that, watered well, would help them relate to the world’s rich mix of races, cultures, and belief systems.

Building bridges started anew quite recently. When our fifth child was 10 years old, I gave birth to a curly, redhaired girl we named Megan. I have spoken French and English to her every day of her life, and she goes with me to French Club meetings at the local library, where she sits playing and soaking up the sounds of the language floating through the room. At nine months of age, she is just beginning to vocalize. And while most of the sounds she makes are not yet language-specific, she often responds exclusively to one language or the other, and occasionally to both, depending on the situation.

When asked, for example, “Where’s your book of baby animals?” she gives a blank stare; however, if asked, “Ou est ton livre Les Bebes Animaux de la Maison?” she turns and reaches for her favorite French book. If someone mentions the kitty, she looks at the cat and makes a mewing sound; if someone speaks of le chaton, she goes through the same motions. When we say au’voir, she responds with a wave, then vocalizes, “Bye-bye.” Of course, to avoid the insidious “No!” as much as possible, we tell her “Touche pas” for “Don’t touch” and “Pas pour manger” when she wants to put things in her mouth that do not belong there.

Multilingualism pour les Enfants

Over the years of delving into languages with my children, I came across research findings that confirmed what I suspected: the early introduction of many languages is indeed a good idea. Children, it turns out, are easily able to learn a new language, or even two or three, before the age of about 11–beyond which the brain’s language-acquisition pathways begin to narrow and become less active. Moreover, children who take on a new language before this change occurs establish routes within the brain that facilitate the learning of additional languages later in life.

Research also reveals that children who learn foreign languages, compared with those who do not, exhibit greater mental flexibility and enhanced critical thinking skills. Indeed, the mental stretching required of multiple-language students has been shown to spill over into other academic areas, resulting in higher test scores than those achieved by single-language students.

According to the Center for Applied Linguistics, as recently as 1991, at least 125 schools throughout the United States were teaching partialor total-immersion foreign language classes in the elementary and middle grades. Lessons were offered in French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Ojibwa, Dakota, Italian, Cantonese, Dutch, and Hawaiian.

In addition, many major corporations now encourage their employees to acquire a second language, and supply teachers, materials, and work-hour classes to ease the process. The consensus is that bilingual skills are needed in today’s world of dissolving borders, international markets, and multinational communications media. The gradual cross-cultural convergence of lifestyles itself demands fluency in more than one language.

Foreign language immersion can easily begin at home during those early receptive years. And parents who speak only one language need not be deterred from the task. My own smattering of high school French and Spanish meant nothing compared with the enthusiasm I shared with my children at the outset. In fact, most of my learning blossomed right along with theirs–though often at a slower pace, considering their still-awakened ability to pick up meanings and intonations. At first, we relied on tapes and hired tutors to help us master the sounds of each new language; then, with a handle on the phonics, we were able to decode the printed words on our own. When it came to Arabic, Mandarin, and Japanese, however, we found the printed words too complicated and settled for audio learning alone.

In all, our family has dabbled in over a dozen languages and dialects. Our linguistic adventures have been both educational and enjoyable, have cemented family bonds, and have given us a tangible sense of belonging to what may one day be a global culture as strong, resilient, and beautifully intricate and variegated as the finest hand-loomed Persian carpet.

Indeed, language and culture are inextricably intertwined, complementing, defining, and enhancing each other. Studying culture alone, however, is like looking in at the window; exploring the language lets you in the door, into the heart of a people’s unique perspective and experience. With the world shrinking as rapidly as it is, exploring languages with our children helps foster understanding and appreciation–attributes that will serve them in the future, as they endeavor to find their unique places in an increasingly complex world.

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