Excerpt from Bilingual By Choice

Introduction

 

There is a shift happening right now. A realization by powerful institutions that people who speak a second language, who understand different cultural nuances, make great contributions to this country in national security, diplomacy, international business, health care, the arts, education, tourism, and much more. This shift is going to help us aswe commit to raising our children with two languages. We need the support of our schools and our communities to help our children sustain their first language and excel in English. But our children’s bilingual future – with all its life-changing social, academic, and economic benefits – will take a high level of commitment and creativity on our part.There are still many misconceptions about childhood bilingualism and second language acquisition that we need to expose.

In a recent interview, Dr. Stephen Krashen said, “Bilingualism in the U.S. only has a future if it is explained to the public and the research becomes well-known.” When I started my Master’s in Intercultural Relations, I came across extensive research on the identity development of bicultural and bilingual children that finally gave me a clearer picture of what I had lived through personally as a 12-year old newcomer from France. But I also realized that this valuable information rarely leaves academic circles and rarely reaches the people who, like me, desperately need it to make sense of their uprooted childhoods.

This book is my attempt to share the knowledge. As you follow the text, you will see that my bicultural identity shows up in its presentation. The French side of me likes to listen to the experts and quietly take notes. I get inspired by their work to advance the cause of bilingual children. The American side of me likes to engage in a more spirited form of learning – that is, honest insights from parents, who can expose all the complexities – and sometimes frustrations – of raising bilingual children. In the mix, I have also added my own narrative of my relocation to the U.S. and how my mother – born and raised in Belgium – and my father – born and raised in Madagascar – succeeded in raising three “late” bilingual and multicultural daughters.

When I decided to raise my twin daughters, Natasha and Sofiya, bilingually, I came across several books that focused on the logistics of creating a bilingual environment at home – Who will speak what language? How much exposure will the children get? But my conversations with other parents made me realize that we had to take it a step further and look deeply at the obstacles and find out why certain families were successful at raising bilingual children and why many failed. I also wanted to explore the cultural issues in our lives that cannot be ignored. For most of us, bilingualism is not just about raising children to speak two languages. It’s also about raising bicultural children who earn early on that there are different ways to see the world, different perspectives on what’s right and wrong, and that our truths are just that, ours. Our children gain intercultural awareness and learn early on that the world as they know it is not being defined the same way by other cultural groups. By teaching our children to speak another language and to understand another culture, we’re creating a smarter and more cooperative generation.

The subject of bilingualism in this country, unfortunately, often turns into a political discussion of race and power, because not everyone is given access to the resources needed to excel in two languages. In some circles it is also grossly misinterpreted as meaning that immigrants want to sustain their first language at the expense of English.It’s not the case. Immigrants are actually learning English much faster than their predecessors, because they understand that it leads to extraordinary opportunities. However, many of us also know for a fact that if our children acquire our native language, in addition to learning English, they will have a brighter future.

Although more than 55 million of us speak a language other than English at home, this country is still defined as monolingual. Which is puzzling since even our Founding Fathers were multilingual! Benjamin Frankin spoke 6 languages, including English, French, Spanish, Germain, Italian, and Latin.Thomas Jefferson could read Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, and Ialian. He often wrote to friends about the importance of speaking foreign languages to better connect with the rest of the world. A message we should all pass on to our children.

The reality today is that this country – at the local, state and federal levels – needs well-educated bilingual and biliterate Americans in almost every field. From the National Security Agency recruiting individuals with language skills in Arabic, Chinese, Dari, Farsi, Pashtu, Russian, Sub-Saharan, African, Turkish, and Urdu, to the critical shortage of qualified bilingual teachers in schools across the country. If there’s a time to give bilingualism a future, I think it’s now. Like it or not, globalization is here to stay so we might as well make it work for us!

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