By Enrique Tessieri
My blood pressure rises every time I hear people state nonchalantly that travelling enriches. If this were the case, why are some societies hostile to some people like immigrants who are growing up in two or more cultures? I was brought up in three national cultures and spoke three languages as a child.
I learned, however, at an early age in Finland and in middle-class Los Angeles that it’s advisable to keep your Otherness at bay. It’s better to fit in rather than to stand out.
This link will take you to an interesting article and video clip on the benefits of bilingualism. What is it and what life-long benefits can a child get when he or she learns at least two languages? Princeton Neuroscientist Sam Wang, co-author of “Welcome to Your Child’s Brain,” claims that bilingualism will supercharge your baby’s brain.
Wang states: “…the benefits of bilingualism go far beyond the ability to order convincingly at Maxim’s in Paris, or to read Dostoevsky in the original. Bilingual toddlers have an improved ability to resolve ‘conflict cues.’ In other words, their minds are more flexible – better able to unlearn previously learned rules in light of new, conflicting information.”
Even though it is clear that speaking more than one language can “supercharge” a child in many ways, a lot depends as well on how society sees diversity.
My three national cultures and languages, which lived inside of me as one whole, appeared to be in harmony with the outside world until I went to catholic school.
One afternoon the history teacher gave us one of those usual “America-is-great-and-communism-is-evil speeches.” Since I had lived in three countries before moving to Los Angeles and traveled every year to Finland to visit my grandparents, I naturally had a different take of the world than the history teacher never mind my classmates.
At the age of thirteen and in eight grade I was still too young to have a defined political ideology.
I raised my hand after the teacher told the class that all of the Russians would flee the Soviet Union if they let them move out of the country.
The teacher and class listened attentively to my candid question: “If the Russians have never visited any countries outside of their own, don’t you think that they consider their country the best in the world?”
My question caused a knee-jerk reaction from the teacher. His glance at me turned hostile. He asked pointblank if I were a communist. “If you don’t like America,” he continued in an enraged voice, “go and live in Moscow!”
He expelled me from the room and grabbed my attaché case and threw it out of the door.
On the brighter side of things, I consider myself fortunate to have grown up in three national cultures.
My advice to those that are growing up in two or more cultures is what a Multicultural Finn told my students this fall: “The first important step is accepting yourself. Extend your hand of friendship if possible to those that may loathe you.”
Those wise words once changed the United States in the 1950s and 1960s during the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King said back then: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”