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November 21, 2008

Diversity and Language: Not Just Words

1 "How do we say manos in French?” my two-and-a-half-year-old son asked, his open hands twisting on his wrists high in the air. “Wait, he’s learning two other languages?” my friend asked, head cocked to the side. French she might understand, knowing that I studied in France in college and that my sister’s kids are half-French and bilingual. “But Spanish too?"

My first inclination upon being discovered as attempting some version of trilingualism is to respond with a defensive stance: No, I’m not trying to accelerate my son’s brainpower. I didn’t flashcard his baby eyes with black and white designs. I couldn’t care less whether he knows any letters or not. I’m not Momzilla looking for ways to gloat about how precocious and worldly my son is.

I just want him to be able to talk to a lot of people … and to understand them. Part of the reason I chose to move to the DC metro area was so that it would be easy to be exposed to lots of different cultures and so it would be easy for me (and any children I might have) to remember that our complexions and beliefs and ideals are not the same as everyone else’s in the world.

I want my son to think of other people’s ways of talking –- and living –- as every bit as valid and interesting and meaningful as his.

A few months ago, another friend mentioned that her family didn’t do her child’s summer homework for the public immersion school because it included things like going to restaurants with menu items in Spanish. “I mean, come on,” she said, eyes rolling. “We don’t do that. He won’t eat that.”

I couldn’t come up with a reply that wasn’t challenging. Because, well, isn’t making different familiar kind of the whole point? What good does it do if her child sees bilingualism and biculturalism simply as academic exercises? Even a simple trip to Chipotle -- though certainly not an education in any one culture -- would show the kid that Spanish has life outside the classroom.

Might this child become less tolerant in the future, thinking that he’s justified to privilege one way of doing things over another because he already fulfilled his diversity requirement in third grade math class? I’m reminded of white college students I taught in women’s studies classes who claimed they couldn’t possibly have any racist feelings because, they offered, “there were a lot of black people at my high school.”

Even if the population at our neighborhood high school nearby wasn’t over 40% Hispanic, raising my son to be monolingual still wouldn’t feel right. Having the language, literally, to engage with people seems like one of the better ways to be able to learn beyond a surface level. Just because his parents speak English in an predominantly English-speaking country does not mean my son can't pull his weight in reaching out. I want him to grow up to be curious and to have enough experiences with different cultures that he can go beyond a simplistic or exoticizing refrain of “This is so different than what we do. Isn’t it interesting?!” Implied message: It’s cool because it’s not normal. What I want him to realize is that normal is relative and that he needs to understand a whole lot of versions of normal to have the best shot at figuring out what he really likes, honors, cares about, wants to choose for himself.

I can teach French because I can speak it. With Spanish, I only know the basics, but it feels like a social justice issue to get past that. To live in this area and to fail to at least expose my son to Spanish –- if not outright teach him –- seems like intentional exclusion. Sure, there are other languages spoken here, and I can’t teach him all of them. But Spanish is shouted on the playground down the street from my house and it’s spoken by people we meet everyday, including the cashier at the grocery store who has a granddaughter in El Salvador my son’s age and who always pinches his cheeks, I imagine for the girl whose
mejillas she can’t reach. My son asks for “Nira” by name but can’t converse with her the way he can with English-speaking folks. Neither can I. Yet.

It would help if I made more efforts to attend events and socializing opportunities where Spanish and French are spoken. This mama clearly could do a better job putting her money where her mouth is. I have only a few Spanish-speaking friends and haven't yet made it to the local Alliance Francaise. I'm still stuck at the level of  mommy and me language classes.

I pulled my son from a cooperative preschool in part to give us time for language classes, but also because I wanted to find full-on childcare for a few hours instead of having to work in a chaotic classroom every other week. I'm clearly not cut out for homeschooling, but I do want my son to be able to explore things on his own terms. So eventually I will have to figure out what to do about education beyond enrichment activities. Although the local Waldorf school we attend now has lots of languages and countries of origin represented, the price tag keeps it demographically different from that of our local public schools. Will my son develop a broad sense of compassion and understanding if he doesn't see the variety that is our true community by working with its members every day?

When does our desire for our kids to interact with a variety of other kids get trumped by our desire to control the environment of that interaction? The problem is that my desire to expose my son to various types of cultural diversity may end up conflicting with my desire to shield him from other kinds of "diversity." After six years teaching in public schools, I know there is a lot not to like: the food, the obsession with media and mass marketing, the disconnection from nature, the testing, the approaches and materials that seem to encourage a short attention span, the often-narrow understanding of “truth.”

Right now, it seems like a calmer environment in a private Waldorf preschool will teach him patience and an openness to figure things out for himself from a place of internal motivation rather than turn him into a rewards-and-punishment junkie. I want to spare him having to deal with all the stuff in public schools that drove me crazy as both a student and a teacher but still give him the opportunity to know and work with lots of different kinds of folks.

I have a few years to figure it out, I hope. I am not in the unenviable position of the Obamas, who have to swiftly make a schooling decision for their children that will probably be criticized no matter what conclusion they reach. For now, at our house, we’re all happily singing along to CDs in Spanish and French. If Sol Y Canto’s “El Doble De Amigos is right, my son will have twice as many friends and twice as much fun since "two languages are better than one."

But here in the DC area, we don’t have to go to "places far away” to be happy that our linguistic prowess helps us “understand what people say.” Speaking more languages just means we can actually talk to more of our neighbors.

An original DC Metro Moms Post.

Jessica Claire obsesses over reflects on the (always inherently political) impact of various parenting and lifestyle choices at Crunchy-Chewy Mama and at Mama's Mouth, where she sometime even writes about what other people call politics.

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