“This place tried to turn my words into stones,” Seren says. She moved to rural Ohio less than six months ago with her husband and three daughters. Her oldest is a college freshman, the younger girls are in 3rd and 5th grade.
Seren grew up in New York City, an only child of busy parents who traveled often for business. Her Welsh-speaking grandmother lived with them and raised Seren on the stories, songs, and traditions of her homeland. In her teens, Seren finally visited Wales with her grandmother. Soon after, her grandmother passed away but the language she imparted to her granddaughter thrived. Seren went on to get an undergraduate degree in history and a graduate degree in Welsh studies.
She and her husband agreed they would raise their children in a dual-language home. Seren speaks Welsh to her children exclusively, her husband speaks to them in English. This is true both at home and in public. They know the benefits of being bilingual. Here are just a few:
- Bilingual kids have enhanced social skills and communication abilities. In part this has to do with more experience understanding the perspective of the person speaking. This involves determining social cues and what’s called “theory of mind” — the ability to recognize one’s own motivations (intentions, beliefs, desires, knowledge, etc) and the understanding that others have their own motivations.
- Dual-language students, in one study, were a full grade level ahead of their monolingual peers in English-reading skills by the end of middle school. Some children in the study were just learning English, yet they outperformed monolingual native English speakers on tests. Chances are this has to do with the way learning two languages enhances executive function (working memory, impulse control, focus, and attention). Studies continue to show bilingual children have stronger executive function.
- Early exposure to a second language affects how the brain organizes languages and improves its ability to learn a new language later in life, even if the first language is forgotten.
- Bilingual people continue to benefit into old age if they continue to use both languages frequently. Brain scans indicate that bilingual people develop greater cognitive reserves. This extra gray matter makes a big difference. In people whose brains show similar levels of dementia, bilingual people show symptoms on average four years later than a monolingual person experiences them. This also may be true in stroke recovery. One study showed cognitive recovery was twice as likely for dual language speakers as for monolinguals after a stroke. Overall, using one’s brain to speak two languages actually delays cognitive decline.
Growing up, Seren says she remembers being a little worried each time a new friend met her grandmother because she and her grandmother spoke to each other in another language. But without fail her friends thought her grandmother was cool. Many of her friends incorporated a few Welsh words into their conversations in a way that became their own informal slang.
Seren’s older daughter also struggled a bit with a bilingual home when she was a teenager. But she’s also known from the time she was a small child that fewer and fewer people speak Welsh. Only 11 percent of people living in Wales speak it fluently, a little over 300,000 people in total. When their daughter is home, she quite naturally speaks in one language to her mother and another to her father.
Since moving to Ohio, however, this bilingual family met with difficulties they never expected. While at a school function for her younger daughter, a classmate’s mother overheard Seren speaking to her daughter in Welsh. That girl later spread the word that she wasn’t allowed to play with Seren’s child because she “wasn’t American.” (Every member of Seren’s family is an American-born citizen, although that’s not the point.)
Another time her middle daughter had a friend over. When Seren and her two younger daughters exchanged a few amused Welsh words about the snack being put on the table, the 10-year-old friend accused them of laughing about her and said she wanted to go home.
And waiting in line at a grocery store, Seren and her daughters spoke to each other in Welsh while the woman in front of them was being checked out. The woman said loudly to the cashier, “It’s disgusting the way people come to this country and can’t even learn the language. Makes me sick.”
Seren says she can’t imagine what other people must be enduring to keep their culture and language alive in a time when frightening acts of intolerance are on the rise.
After her daughters pleaded with her, she made a concession. For the first time in 18 years, Seren changed the way she speaks to her daughters. They now keep Welsh to themselves. Speaking only English around others, she says, “is like losing Nain all over again.”
But she hasn’t given up. She is working with the elementary school to put on an annual international fair where the world’s diversity will be celebrated in song, story, art, and food. She’s also planning to invite new friends and neighbors to a traditional Welsh Christmas party at her home this year.
7 thoughts on “Translating Intolerance”
Thank you for writing about this important issue and for sharing Seren and her family’s story. When we were living in the U.S., people used to look at my husband strangely when he spoke to our children in another language. A few people, once they recognized it was French, thought it was “charming” because it’s apparently an “acceptable” language. Still, my children refused to speak it and would only converse in public in English because they didn’t want to be teased for being different. Having lived abroad for several years now, it’s common to hear people speaking at least two languages. It’s unfortunate that Seren and her children have been the victims of the fear that otherness engenders, but she has given her children an enormous gift–not just of being bilingual–but preserving her grandmother’s culture and fostering a broader and kinder world view.
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You are in a unique position to see many sides of this Ellen, having lived in very different parts of the world. I think Seren’s kids hadn’t expected this at all because their previous home (and school) was, according to her, “like a little UN.” I can only hope that the presence of Seren’s family in their new community will help to dispel, as you say so well, “the fear that otherness engenders.”
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Sad. And frightening. Welsh is such a beautiful sounding language. Tom Friedman in ‘From Beirut to Jerusalem’ (the book that first made me feel I understood both sides of the equation and what was really going on there) noted that America, sandwiched between Canada and Mexico, never had to develop a savvy about foreign cultures. Unlike closely compacted Europeans, most of whom are multilingual. What it lacked it made up for in sheer military might. He relates the joke: Q: Where does an 800 lb gorilla sit? Wherever it wants.
My first language was German, spoken to me by my mother fifteen years after the war in England after marrying my English father. My paternal grandmother heard me speak it took a fit: “No grandkid of mine is going to speak Kraut!!” Upset, Mom stopped and I lost most of it. Though I’m sure if I visited Germany I would have a head start learning it.” Later on dating an Iranian woman I taught myself a smattering of Farsi.
Learning a another language is one of the best bridge-building exercises I can think of to learn another culture and open oneself to the new in general, to respond to it as a challenge to be mastered rather than a threat to retreat from or strike-out against.
It also gives one a greater choice of concepts. Different languages have words whose meaning are almost untranslatable in others.
I think the situation Seren encountered is an indictment of public education that undermines true curiosity and eagerness to learn.
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I so agree. Language is a bridge, a window, a whole new story.
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“Prejudices are rarely overcome by argument. Not being founded on reason, they cannot be overcome by logic” (Troy Edwards).
It isn’t so much the shattering ignorance displayed in those attitudes that’s dismaying but the illogicality of a country that was founded and built by ‘foreigners’ now turning against them. Sadly, it’s nothing new, and the fear of the other has been going strong forever. I’ve experienced some of what Seren’s children did; my mother was ‘foreign’ in a rural community in 1960s England where it was considered not quite nice to be so different, and other children were encouraged to keep away from us, perhaps in case our foreignness was catching…
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And yet we keep thinking logic will work!
Or perhaps that should be “hoping”…
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