Multiple magazine articles, both scholarly and popular extoll the benefits of bilingualism or multilingualism for the health and efficiency of the human brain. It is said that those who learn multiple languages from birth are less likely, for example, to develop early onset Alzheimer’s disease…if the disease does appear, it is more likely to be delayed proportionately to the fluency and depth of understanding attained in a second language. Foreign languages are promoted as a means to make your child (or self) appear more sophisticated and cognitively advanced, leading parents to believe their child will become a front running contender for advanced educational programs, degrees, and be more competitive in the job markets of the future. Of course, certain languages are considered more useful than others, depending on where you live in the world. In a not so distant past, it was believed that learning a second language could cause developmental delays, but this is no longer the current consensus.
From my readings, I often gather that an overlying assumption motivates parents’ wishes for their children to learn foreign languages: that it makes their minds more logical and mathematical, and therefore better prepared for our technical and information age. While I understand these arguments, some of which seem plausible and worthy, I have my own reasons for defending and promoting multi-lingualism. To learn a new language means to learn to understand and assimilate a new culture. Culture includes body language and unspoken assumptions about time, proximity, morality, justice, love and how affection is demonstrated or withheld, diet, and so much more. Simply learning grammatical constructs, while being great gymnastics for the rational mind, is only a small part of the benefits of bilingualism.
As a child, my first language was English, and I learned Hebrew from first through seventh grade well enough to be able to write essays in the language. I can’t say I remember much, but it was probably good for my brain. I can still read and remember the written alphabet and some words…Starting in eighth grade, I began to learn French. At the time, I was completely unaware that France would soon become my new home and French my new language. I was very motivated to learn French as I advanced through high school, reading novels with a bilingual dictionary close by.
When I did move to France and began to learn the French language in earnest, I was struck by an epiphany of sorts. My heart, mind and body were infused by a rush of freedom and joy when I realized that each word I learned was brand new to me, fresh and without any connotations or memories attached. I could create a new life for myself with this language, and this feeling was very liberating to me. By living, working, and going to school in France, I was able to learn many aspects of French culture all while learning the language, and these experiences are to me inseparable from the language itself. And, of course, there were many moments of hilarious confusion caused by misunderstanding and misinterpreting the words and intentions of others. Another unexpected benefit of my expat experience was rediscovering my country of birth, the United States, upon my return after nearly 18 years away. Like Bill Bryson in I’m a Stranger Here Myself, I too found my home culture suddenly quite foreign, and the adjustment required considerable effort in the first months and years.
A book I enjoyed which recounts the experiences of another American in Paris was Bringing up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman (2012), and it echoed some of my own experiences bringing up a young child born in France. The book is a humorous but also informative account of how French child-rearing principles differ from American parenting styles. When you are at wit’s end because your child won’t eat or sleep or because you have no free time (ie, not enough boundaries), this book just might be a helpful aid. In French culture, the manner in which children are raised is quite uniform across the country and differs little from family to family. Parents are expected to enjoy adult time and children are expected to respect the boundaries or “limites” which separate them from adults. Politeness is mandatory, as is delayed gratification. Parents want their children to be “éveillés” (literally alert, but really meaning that efforts should be made to expose them to a variety of learning opportunities).
Another fun read from pastry chef, food blogger, and cookbook author David Lebovitz is The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s Most Glorious and Perplexing City. An anecdotal delight with fifty recipes included, this book made me laugh aloud many times as I recognized some of my own impressions and experiences so similar to those recounted by the author (the limp shower hose lacking any wall attachment that becomes a wet snake in the bathtub – also no shower curtains…come to mind!).
Yet another such book humorously evoking French social life and customs by Harriet Welty Rochefort is Joie de Vivre: Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing Like the French. She too writes a blog about her experiences of life in Paris and the ins and outs of French / Parisian culture. Another title by Ms. Rochefort is French Toast: An American in Paris Celebrates the Maddening Mysteries of the French. I especially enjoyed her comment on her blog in which she critiques a French journalist who claims the French are increasingly unhappy because they are complaining about a variety of issues…when complaining (I agree with Ms. Rochefort) is a French national past-time not unlike the British discussing the weather, and is not at all indicative of unhappiness. It is simply a means to connect with others on neutral terrain.
I also found delightful Paris in Love by Eloisa James, whose literary currency is the romance novel. The style of writing of this autobiographical memoir is somewhat burlesque and exaggerated, thus the humor. I don’t read romance novels and would probably never read one of Ms. James romances, but Paris in Love is a light and fun read.
If you would like to try your hand at reading in French, DCPL offers French language collections for children, young adults, and adults at the Decatur and Clarkston branches. These items are, of course, available for request by all patrons. When searching the catalog on-line, simply enter the search term: “Spanish language materials “, or “Russian language materials”, etc. Other language collections for linguists “en herbe” at DCPL are Russian (Dunwoody) and Japanese (Decatur, Dunwoody), Spanish (all locations), Vietnamese (Chamblee, Clarkston, Doraville), Korean (Chamblee, Doraville), Chinese (Chamblee, Decatur, Doraville). A newer addition of Arabic language materials to the DCPL collection is available at both the Clarkston and Decatur branches. Entries in the library catalog are in Arabic to make searching easier for native speakers.
In addition to these permanent language collections, there are audiobooks, primarily by Pimsleur, aiding in the acquisition of a wider variety of languages at various levels. Beginners may also access Mango and Tell Me More language learning programs through the library website. A number of online sites offer language lessons free of charge. The BBC site is well designed and offers a variety of interactive learning opportunities in a variety of languages. Another free site for French language is francaisfacile.com. On livemocha.com, you can learn, teach, and explore various language communities.
Other titles in the DCPL collection related to the theme of foreign language and culture. Bonne lecture!
- Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin lessons in life, love, and language by Deborah Fallows, 2010
- A Peek at Japan: a lighthearted look at Japan’s culture and language, by Florence E. Metcalf, illustrated by Tomoko, 1992
- The Hand: how its use shapes the brain, language, and human culture, by Frank R. Wilson, 1998
- Born to Kvetch: Yiddish language and culture in all its moods, by Michael Wex, 2005
- Talkin that Talk: language, culture and education in African America, by Geneva Smitherson, 2000
- La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the world’s most enchanting language, by Dianne Hales, 2009
- There’s a Word for It: the explosion of the American language since 1900, by Sol Steinmetz, 2010
- Through the Language Glass: why the world looks different in other languages, by by Guy Deutscher, 2010
- A Geek in Japan: discovering the land of manga, anime, zen, and the tea ceremony, by Hector Garcia, 2011
- Living in a Foreign Language: a memoir of food, love, and wine in Italy, 2007