A shift is happening right now. Powerful institutions are coming to realize that people who speak a second language, and understand different cultural nuances, make great contributions to this country in national security, diplomacy, international business, health care, the arts, education, tourism, and many other areas.
This shift in perception is going to help us as we commit to raising our children with two languages. It will mean more support from our schools and our communities as we 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 require a high level of commitment and creativity on our part. We still need to expose many misconceptions about childhood bilingualism and second-language acquisition.
In a recent interview, linguist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Southern California, 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 as a twelve-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 regularly. The French side likes to listen to the experts and quietly take notes. I get inspired by their efforts to advance the cause of bilingual children. The American side likes to engage in a more spirited form of learning: honest insights from parents, who 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, looking deeply at the obstacles and finding 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 who speak two languages. It's also about raising bicultural children who learn early on that there are different ways to see the world and different perspectives about what's right and wrong; children who come to know that our truths are just that - ours.
Bicultural children gain intercultural awareness and learn early on that the world as they know it is not being defined in the same ways 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 the push for bilingualism is also grossly misinterpreted as immigrants' desire to sustain their first language at the expense of English.
That's not the case. Immigrants are learning English much faster than their predecessors because they understand that it leads to extraordinary opportunities. However, many of us also know that if our children acquire our native language, in addition to learning English, they will have a brighter future.
"The reality today is that this country needs well-educated bilingual and biliterate Americans in almost every field, at the nationa, state, and local levels - from the National Security Agency, recruiting individuals with language skills in Arabic, Chinese, Dari, Farsi, Pashtu, Russian, Sub-Saharan African, Turkish, and Urdu, to our public schools, which face a critical shortage of qualified bilingual teachers.
If there's a time to give bilingualism a future, it's now. Like it or not, globalization is here to stay; we might as well make it work for us!
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