For bilingual children in the U.S., having just a sufficient grasp of the English language to succeed in school doesn’t work well the rest of the time. These children often can only fully communicate their wants, needs and values when they are at home speaking their native tongue. This is not okay for a country of immigrants and children of immigrants.
Language allows us to make ourselves understood and to understand those who are far away in space or even time. Every one of the world’s 7,000+ languages allow various actions and subtle meanings to be articulated between speakers of each of those languages. What speakers of individual languages can convey with others who speak a different language is limited by their understanding of each other’s language and culture.
Many languages have rich and varied terms for items, feelings, gestures and especially ideas for which we don’t even have words in English (however, English is famous for adopting words and phrases from other languages into its vocabulary). When we come to a point where communicating is imperative, what we are trying to mean with a particular term or phrase might not be the exact same thing that folks speaking limited English language might be saying to each other, even when using those same words. This is the stuff of international diplomacy and most importantly for the development of friendships.
When cultures change via colonization or merge, over time languages evolve to reflect the population’s new day-to-day realities. For a minor language to survive a merger, it has to retain as much or more worth for its native speakers than the dominant language does. The home language must be the best way to communicate something that has a special prominence and significance in a family’s culture/language community. If it isn’t the best, that language will disappear. (Currently, the world is losing one of its languages every two weeks.)
Bilingual speakers may say, “There’s no word in English for what I need to say.” This is the opening for a conversation that will sharpen communication and enrich concepts about life and the world. Here’s where picture books, stories, drama, family participation in school, and the visual and performing arts from BOTH cultures are essential learning tools. They offer an ideal medium for such deep educational encounters to occur.
Now, I invite you to think of that single immigrant child with no close friends because she can’t fully engage with her peers. New speakers of all ages must learn to bridge the gap into full expression of their needs and their ideas to thrive in a new language community. The rest of us have an obligation to help them. English speakers to whom the U.S. has always been home need to teach newly bilingual children and their families our culture and the language that goes with it…and help them teach us theirs so that together we can learn how to share more fully each day who we all are with each other.