Thursday, August 29, 2013

Stop Monolingualism!

I find this ironic: I left the mono-cultural, homogenic little Germany twenty years ago, to move to the melting pot, heterogenic, multicultural US. Now I moved back here, to find a true, buzzling global city. 

On a regular subway ride in Berlin these days you are guaranteed to hear conversations at a minimum in English, French, Arabic, Turkish, and Spanish. Often Russian and Polish, and very often one or two additional mystery languages you can’t identify. German? Not so much. Germans tend to be quiet and grumpy on the subway.

Ruby and Rory now go to Nelson Mandela International School in the center of the old Westberlin. This year, students from 54 countries are attending, speaking I don’t know how many languages, the common one of course being English. But ALL these kids are multilingual. I am really happy that my kids get to be in this environment. Ben attends the neighborhood elementary school, and at the parent night this week I spotted two African families, one Polish mom, a Brazilian-German family and another one from Spain. (In addition to a double-dad family, which is cool, but off-topic here…but anyway, congratulations to all my same sex friends finally getting married this week in New Mexico!) Ben’s buddies are starting to study English this year, in third grade. During the English classes, the principal has agreed to work with Ben on his German writing skills.

When I first heard the term “bilingual” in the US I didn’t understand or use it correctly, because in German “zweisprachig” means that someone grows up speaking two languages and masters both equally well. It doesn’t apply to someone learning a second language in school or later in life. Zweisprachig is a higher standard than bilingual. Which may be symptomatic with what is going on in language education and the culture of monolingualism.

I don’t get why there is not an expectation in (many parts of) the US that children learn a second and third foreign language.

When Charlie grew up in an Italian neighborhood in New York, speaking one’s native language was considered a bad thing. It was a sign of failing to assimilate. He was 12 years old until he realized that his dad spoke Italian. The family had to hide the fact that they spoke German at home, this being less than ten years after the end of WWII.

Native American youth in state boarding schools for decades were prohibited from speaking their native languages. We can’t even begin to assess the damage done to the cultural identities and oral traditions of those people and their entire tribes. They are just lost forever.

I heard many Hispanic people in southwest NM communicate in Spanglish. I find no beauty in that tongue, which mangles both languages, much like the T├╝rkendeutsch (Turkish-German) I heard immigrant kids speak when I was growing up in Berlin. There are no consistent Spanish classes offered in public schools, no way for youth to learn the beautiful language of their heritage, and to read Fuentes, Borges, Rulfo, de la Cruz and Paz.

So why is it that immigrants and their descendants in the US try so hard, and/or are coerced so hard to lose their mother tongue? There is not much social, cultural and educational value placed on speaking more than English.

In Northern Europe, on the other hand, you don’t even get admitted to any educational institution above 7th grade without speaking 1-2 foreign languages. It is just considered part of a well-rounded, basic education. There is no choice about it. It made it a challenge to find schools for Rory and Ruby in Berlin that could accommodate their lack of a 2nd foreign language. Now they are at the International School, and Ruby is finally learning French.

Many people in the US have asked me with awe how many languages I speak, and when they hear the answer (four, through no specific effort of my own), they respond with sighs of envy and resignation. My kids, who all speak passable German, again just because they heard it spoken at home, are almost considered little geniuses. Come on. Why not up the ante for your own kids?

If it is true that the language we speak both reflects and affects our view of the world, then this leads to the hypotheses that if we add one language or more, our view of the world broadens and gets enriched. As will our life. Let’s break this down.

Benefits of Bilingualism

Enhanced brain development - early learning of a language makes it easier to learn all your life. Bilingual kids have an easier time to learn math, for example, which from a learning brain’s perspective, is just another language.

Widening of the perceptive horizon - being bilingual helps you better understand concepts from differently thinking cultures and be more open to step out of your own thinking box. For example, Spanish and Italian both have a remote past tense, so English and German speakers’ brains are challenged with distinguishing not so far away past from remote past. Most languages other than English have genders (male, female, neutral) for each noun. In her intensive German course Maddy learned about the German cases (Dativ, Accusativ, etc.) which determine how you declinate verbs and personal pronouns. It’s like the colors that the butterfly sees, that we don’t even have words for.

Better chances in employment in a global economy - Good luck trying to land a job in international commerce, development, or government with just English.

And btw you’ll come off less as a full-of-yourself American who assumes everyone speaks English when traveling abroad. Bilingualism opens up people, as well as their art, culture, history in countries ten times as old as ours. My friend Ed Ward,  part of a new tribe he named American-Europeans,  has now lived in Europe for a third of his life. He will attest to the fact that you can't truly immerse without at least passably mastering the native language. Ed writes about his version of daily intercultural shock (and his 20th anniversary of moving to Berlin) very aptly in this post, and anyway, you should totally follow his blog, which complements this one well.

Continuing on to the.....

Effects of Monolingualism

We (or your kids, for that matter) remain stuck in our own limited culture box, don’t look past the US border, or even over into the next ethnic neighborhood. We can’t communicate with non-English speakers when traveling abroad. We’ll never go to school outside the US and will never be employed at a global company working in other countries. And: Monolingualism breeds monolingualism. If the value of bilingualism is not experienced by the parents, they’ll be less likely to support their offspring in achieving it.

Of course, you, the estimated reader, and all your progressive friends really do know all this. Many otherwise educated US citizens have a sense of national inferiority because of the culture of monolingualism. What I don’t get is why nobody does anything about it. Why don’t tax and tuition paying parents demand language education? Why is this particular issue met with such self-defeating resignation?


Ed Ward said...

Ha: "Westberlin." Commie!

Nikki Zeuner said...


Merritt said...

It is cogent argument for expanding human capacity!