I knew while pregnant that I wanted my daughter to learn a second language while young. Yet, when I made the conscious decision to raise by daughter to be bilingual, I was unaware at the time of any studies showing cognitive benefits. Rather, I intuitively thought about the broader social and economic benefits; the ones that lured me into being bilingual. The ability to communicate and connect with people from different backgrounds from around the world; the ability to see things through multiple perspectives; and the fact that the global economy is creating an even greater need of having people who can do these things were all reasons I had not only for being bilingual but also for raising my child to be bilingual.
Now with a daughter in elementary school, I also consider a huge benefit that I did not foresee at the time. The benefit of being part of and raising a child in a lovely diverse community with shared common values. Being brought up in an ethnically diverse family, my daughter was very highly aware of differences in culture, food and looks from a very early age. However, I found that the community we cultivated by partaking in various bilingual programs very early on allowed her to not only celebrate her own uniqueness but also to appreciate and accept the uniqueness of others more fully.
I would like to say it all started off rosy and remained that way simply because of our own family diversity and being in bilingual programs; but reality is much more complicated than that. What I discovered is that children are some of the most tribal beings of all and they automatically gravitate toward people they identify with the most to help create their own social identity. In truth, I was surprised when my daughter at the age of two already identified herself as white like mommy and not brown like daddy (whom she of course loves and adores). Once while visiting my husband’s family in the Northeast when my daughter was four years of age, my daughter was hesitant to play with a large group of her cousins, many of whom she had just met for the first time in her short memory, because they were brown and she was not. In short, I was confused, embarrassed, appalled and then after learning more about child development and reading Nurture Shock by Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson, I understood. (I encourage everyone to read an excerpt linked here found in Nurture Shock). I realized that dialogue about race and culture was essential in helping my daughter gain a better understanding of the world around her and her place in it.
What profoundly helped in having this dialogue was that we were also a part of a diverse community which we had cultivated through our bilingual program. What makes this community particularly special is that it is made of a uniquely diverse population who care about the same thing–respect for multicultural engagement as well as language learning. With a respectful and diverse community to draw from, I was able to engage my daughter in conversations early on about culture and race while also engaging in fruitful relationships that went beyond conversation. This context has also opened the door to provide greater conversation, understanding and acceptance on a broad range of other issues that extend beyond race and culture.
Now that she is a bit older, my daughter is both sure of herself and accepting of others. Her understanding of culture and history and how it fits in our American society is keen. We as a family had to initiate the conversation; yet, by being in a diverse community engaged in bilingual and multicultural education, we were able to not only have the conversation but also expand upon it in a positive and loving way.