I grew up in a multicultural household. My Mom is Thai and my Dad’s American. I often get, “Cool! You’re half Thai (and the occasional Taiwanese but that’s a whole ‘nother issue). You must speak Thai!” Umm..actually no.
Like so many kids of “immigrant” parents my mom wanted to assimilate into American society. Translation: speaking English. Sure, growing up we went to Thai school and mouthed words for a few years, but with no practice at home we fell behind and ultimately broke our Mom with our shrill pleas not to have to go anymore.
Today I would consider myself bilingual but beyond “hi” “thank you” and “I need to go to the bathroom,” I still don’t speak Thai. In college instead I took up Italian and worked at the language both as an undergrad and grad student. I now live and work in Italy and I speak Italian in my day-to-day life as a way to assimilate into the local culture..how ironic.
I don’t live my life with regrets but if there’s one thing I wish I had understood from a young age it is the importance of multilingualism. As a way of rectifying this grave oversight I’ve made a promise to myself that my kids, regardless of when I have them, where I live, if I’m a single, if I adopt, and so on and so forth, will grow up bilingual. Here’s why:
Knowing a second language can open up the world to you—not only for work, but for friendship and even love. Life is about connecting with people and knowing another language sure does help with that.
Once upon a time people thought bilingual kids were disadvantaged. You’d ask them to name all words starting with “p” in one language and they’d be slower than monolingual kids in responding. Flip the script and tell them to name all words with “p” in any which language and they went to town spouting out words left and right. This ability to unlock certain parts of the brain helps to creativity from inner corners of the brain that might otherwise go filled with cob webs.
Sometimes there’s just no other way to say what you want to say other than in a specific language. Saying “pig dog” in English sounds just ridiculous but if you yell “porco cane” in Italian it takes on a whole different meaning.
Learning a second language from the cradle makes it only easier to add more. I’ve made friends who grew up in bilingual households who then added 1, 2, 3 or more languages in school and college and I can’t even begin to describe the burning jealousy I have when I see them spin around in a circle speaking a different language to everyone around them.
It’s difficult to be perfectly fluent in two languages. Usually people are more dominant in one or the other. This means often you have to improvise or find a work around to get your point across. These are skills that are very handy for life in general.
One day my mom turned to me and said, “If you don’t learn Thai that part of your culture will end with you.” This left me floored. It’s true. Unless I learn Thai or pass it onto my kids, that part of my lineage will turn into some family legend, “You know I think you had a great great grandmother who was Asian or something.”
Even if you’re not ethnically mixed, knowing another language gives you access to other cultures and perspectives through books, tv, film and travel. Being multicultural has a whole rack of benefits including being able to relate that much better to Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” music video.
When you do and see things differently it’s impossible not to grow as a person. We never stop learning even in our native language. Another language doesn’t multiply your ability to grow as a person, it increases it exponentially.
Of course this is subjective on where you want to travel and what languages you learn. If you speak Amharic and Aleut (sorry if this is you) perhaps my chances are a bit limited to go exploring in my mother tongue, but knowing common languages like Mandarin, English, French or Spanish makes it easier to get around.
Music is life. It’s emotion. It’s expression. The ability to enjoy music in various languages AND understand what in the world they’re saying is a gift, really.