Thursday, September 11, 2008

Gringo bilingual

A while ago, Barack Obama said, "Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English, because they will learn English, you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish." This off-the-cuff remark caught the nation's 2-second attention span, created a tizzy, then went away. But the issue remains vital: we're in an increasingly bilingual, bicultural country, and what do we do about that?

Our response was to put our little blonde-haired, green-eyed son into a bilingual education program at his school. This wasn't a let's-learn-Spanish class for white kids, this was a program for immigrant kids. Our school served a lower-income neighborhood, and most of my son's new classmates were children of housekeepers and day laborers. My family thought we were nuts. We suspected we might be nuts, too, but it was kindergarten -- a safe enough venue for a little social experimentation.

Fast forward to the end of the year, and my son was now able to speak a bit of Spanish (and understand more), and had helped his monolingual-Spanish-speaking buddies learn a little more English. But the language was only a small part of the experience. He learned to be completely comfortable with these kids, the kind of kids most American schoolchildren only see lurking in the shadows, and rarely socialize with. The kids had names like Soledad and José and Arturo, and Aidan was about the only gringo kid they knew.

The cross-cultural experience was, for us, the most surprising and important part of the year. When I went on field trips with the class, I had to sit in a car with people whose English was as bad as my Spanish, and we had to make small talk. After school when we picked up the kids, the white mommies looked at me askance as I left their group and went over to the Spanish-speaking group. What was as simple as breathing for the kids -- they immediately accepted Aidan and he them -- was much harder for us grown-ups, but just as important.

It makes me wish this experience was mandatory. Throw all kindergartners in a big language soup together, and watch them thrive. Brush off our own prejudices and get in the water ourselves.

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