Benefits through opportunities in travel surfaced early on in the interviews. Many of my friends had already visited Latvia but had also traveled extensively around the US and Canada to Latvian events: summer camps, scouting expeditions, youth association events and other cultural happenings. Bilingualism in travel turns out to be a multi-faceted benefit, as not only is it easier to navigate a country if able to speak the mother tongue, but a speaker of the native language will find it easier to complete everyday tasks, meet people and obtain employment. The motivation to travel internationally was also estimated to be stronger with the additional language under your belt; I doubt that any of my friends would have visited Europe at that young an age if not for the Latvian heritage and language.
Our family’s expatriate stint in France only reinforced my understanding of being bilingual and the connection with travel. The opportunity to move to France came about partly because of my husband’s previous French studies, and the extensive traveling we did during our time overseas would not have been feasible if not for his approach to - if it is a word - trilingualism. My knowledge of French was minimal, and I discovered the complexity of completing tasks without any language fluency; my husband took on the majority of household tasks involving any significant interaction with the locals until I managed to pick up a little French. Luckily this language capability soon accumulated in the form of grocery-store and post-office vocabulary.
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Also mentioned as a benefit of bilingualism in the long-ago history fair project was a financial benefit to speaking two languages. My friends listed their dual-language capabilities on their resumes, and many have since gone on to use their ability to speak a second language with international employers, where a second language leads to an understanding of other cultures, even if the languages in question are different. Working with international companies oftentimes brings exclusive advantages to those who speak the language of the country that the company headquarters is in, and it was widely noted by interviewees that being bilingual is beneficial to one’s career.
In our own home, a large motivating factor in deciding to raise our two boys bilingually is the mental benefit. Several studies have shown that bilingual children have advantages in switching between two tasks, are more adept at problem-solving, more successful at creative thinking and overall, more mentally agile than children that speak only one language. There is evidence that bilingualism delays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms, in addition to making it easier to learn additional languages. (During our time in France I would not have been able to learn as much French as I did learn without knowing Latvian; it is structured far more similarly to French than to English.) Although toddlers raised in an environment where multiple languages are spoken may take longer to say their first words, the resulting mental flexibility that develops is an asset in development. My oldest, Lauris, is finally speaking in sentences and can differentiate between I, me and mine (which I see as a big milestone in his development), but I will admit that I was very nervous when all his French playmates were speaking and he had not yet started. It helped to remind myself that even as he seemed behind on vocabulary, he did understand most of what was said to him in French and Latvian, and once he started speaking he quickly made up for lost time. In any case, I feel an immense loss over leaving France before he had the chance to truly learn the language; it makes learning Latvian seem that much more important.
But what is the primary benefit of being bilingual, the main reason we are raising our children to be bilingual? The one answer that rang loudest during that interview over a decade ago is the same I submit today: love! Love for Latvia, the Latvian culture, the Latvian people and the Latvian language. Language connects children to their ancestors, it binds us to a country that might be far away but is very close to our hearts.
Both my husband and I were born in the United States, but we identify ourselves as Latvian in addition to American, and being bilingual has been integral in shaping our identity. It is the often mispronounced name, and the Saturdays spent in school building vocabulary and learning grammar. It is answering questions about where Latvia is located, doing history fair projects on Latvians in Chicago and explaining that the language differs very much from Latin. Our language is the tie that connects me to a country thousands of miles away, a granddaughter born in the US to her grandmother born in Europe. My grandparents arrived in the United States after WWII not as immigrants but as displaced persons, and some of the only possessions that they carried with them were their language and their customs. Today speaking two languages is a privilege, not a necessity, and I reap the benefits every day.
As I realized when hitting stop on the tape recorder during that interview of my friends many years ago, the Latvian language is the one thing Latvians have that no other people in the world have. But it was to be another dozen years before I would fully understand the benefits that learning a second language would give me. When my parents made the decision over thirty years ago to teach me Latvian and English, I was given a gift. That gift of a second language has opened doors, created opportunities, and left me with an insight into and appreciation for different cultures and different worlds than my own. And the realization that has come to me today is that I possess no greater gift which to give to my sons.
This essay is my entry into the Inspire Language Learning: Blogger Challenge.
As the winner will be determined by a combination of facebook "likes" and a jury panel, please help me by hitting the "like" button below!
Thanks to Russell Ward for bringing my attention to this contest! You can check out his entry over at In Search of a Life Less Ordinary.