Thursday, February 24, 2011

Biligual baby


Caleb pulled out his tiny plastic toddler chair, sat down, and declared: “baby kaa chini” (baby sit down).  Later that night, he put his tiny head on his pillow and said “mtoto lala.” (baby sleeps).  And Colin and I were instantly giddy at his effortless acquisition of Kiswahili.
One of the consolations in raising Caleb in rural-ish Kenya – something that helps make up for time away from grandparents and easy access to playdates and parks – is the ability he’ll gain to look at the world through multiple cultural lens.  To understand at an innate level that there is more than one way to navigate the world and that no one way is necessarily more natural or superior than the next.  And picking up another language is provides, in some way, a daily reminder of that lesson. 
Plus, there are all kinds of benefits to growing up bilingual, despite the concern people consistently express to us about Caleb being “confused.”  I’m no expert, but a brief study of the literature shows that bilingual kids have better classification skills, concept formation and visual-spatial skills, and it also becomes easier to learn subsequent language.  I’ve even read that bilingual elderly people have shown a lower incidence of cognitive decline.  All this – and the great effort and expense I took to fail at learning French - makes me sorely wish I had grown up bilingual. 
Or maybe I’m over-intellectualizing.  Truth is, there’s simply a cool factor to being bilingual and bicultural; and try as we might as adults, we are often clumsy despite great efforts at achieving either.  It’s a joy to watch Caleb, with the purity and ease of childhood, accomplish things that we so often fail at as adults.      

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