This week the United Nations invites us to celebrate International Mother Language Day.
I’m guessing most of us are unaware of this invitation, especially those of us in the U.S., where celebrating our mother language is a bit like fish celebrating water. Why celebrate something that seems omnipresent?
Indeed, those of us who hail from the good ole U.S. of A. might refer to other languages as mother tongues, but to us, the language we speak is just English, though it sounds recognizably different from all the other Englishes…like the English spoken in England, Scotland, Australia, New York, South Africa, Mobile, Canada, etc.
Two decades ago, there were efforts in the U.S. to legislate English-only classrooms and to reduce the amount of time allotted to teaching English to speakers of other mother languages, effectively hurrying kids up to be normal…like all other U.S. citizens. That mistake was relatively short lived as our country became more and more linguistically and culturally diverse, and the teaching of English to speakers of other languages was studied, written about and refined. As a result, we now know about the cognitive values of learning more than one language.
Presently, a growing number of schools around the nation offer options for dual-language immersion programs, English plus another tongue, like French, Mandarin Chinese or Arabic. One school I know of offers families several second languages choices for their entering preschool and primary students. And I know children living in another U.S. city have to get lucky in a lottery to get into such programs.
Some staunch U.S. citizens might ask,”Why would parents choose to confuse their children with the task of learning more than one language? English reigns supreme and is spoken all over the world, after all.” In response I say, “For starters, learning two languages early impacts the structure of the brain. It’s a good thing for kids to have complex neurology. Bilinguals also are more empathic toward children who speak other languages with whom they otherwise couldn’t comfortably interact.”
Furthermore, a recent, well-designed study demonstrated that bilingual children end up on average a full year ahead of their single language peers in reading achievement by the time they finish middle school. That’s HUGE!
But even without such a pronounced educational outcome, the accomplishment of being bilingual effectively enhances life in significantly ways. Access to advanced language and literature study can clearly double exciting choices of good books, poetry, scholarship and song. It also positively boosts success in college admission, enhances employment and eventually business possibilities, and opens doors to recreational and study travel.
So, how many mother languages does the U.S. have? Surprising to many, there are nearly 350 different languages spoken in homes across the nation. That includes English, languages of immigrants or refugees, and the almost 175 indigenous languages of American Indians. Each of these languages captures and conveys a unique culture that cannot be fully understood or appreciated without it.
I encourage you to step outside of your mother tongue community into another that may sound foreign to you. Get to know families from other traditions who also wish to get to know yours. Doing so will create connections, then hopefully, bonds with these fellow Americans, with the awareness and appreciation of other cultures that can wonderfully enriching our own.
Now, there’s a United Nation worth celebrating!