Friday, September 4, 2009

Baby Steps in Mandarin and Arabic

by Richard Crews

"The parting with my wife and poor children has often been to pulling the flesh from my bones. Often brought to my mind are the many hardships, miseries, and needs that my poor family were likely to meet with...especially my poor blind child who, I must confess, lay nearer to my heart than all the others. Oh, the thoughts of the hardship my poor blind one might undergo would break my heart to pieces. Poor child, what sorrows are you likely to have for your portion in this world! You must be beaten, must beg, suffer cold, hunger, nakedness, and a thousand calamities though I cannot now endure that the wind should blow upon thee." (John Bunyan, 1666)

Every parent wants the best for their child. We want to start them in life with a strong emotional foundation so that they feel deeply safe and secure no matter what tribulations--even disasters--life may throw at them. We want them to have a healthy body and be armed with knowledge and habits that will assure their physical well-being across decades of development and devolution. And we want them to have the foundational mental skills--in perception, memory, and reasoning--that will enable them to build a complete and functional, pragmatic but inspired personality, character, and world view.

Parenting is one of the most difficult and important challenges that each of us takes on in life, but it is usually done essentially from an "amateur" position. We learned it mostly from our parents and other amateurs, and we never fully confront the intricacies and the breath of the challenges.

There is one area in particular in which most child-rearing "systems" (i.e., the behavioral patterns that govern a particular household) are deficient. That is in the development of language. Every child learns a native language, and also a rich, metaphor- and homonym-ridden para-language--a slang--that goes along with the native language and varies with the particular locale and cultural group of the family home. Since there are more than 5,000 languages spoken in the world today--and many, many more that died out in centuries past--it is clear that the number of different mental-equipment systems a child may inherit from language-cultural roots is truly vast.

There are several aspects of native language that one should note. For one thing, the structure (particularly the grammar) and also the vocabulary (what can and can't be readily symbolized in a language) are very important in the child's developing thought patterns. Furthermore, languages vary widely in the mental tools they bequeath to a child (and therefore to the adult that child becomes). Benjamin Lee Whorf, a leading scholar in the field of linguistics during the first half of the twentieth century, went so far as to say that the world we experience--our reality--varies depending on the native language we learned in our earliest, thought-forming years.

It is easiest to acquire a deep, "native" familiarity with a language during the first few years of life. One can only imagine how important--how powerful--it must be to acquire the mental tools of more than one language during those formative years. Yet very few households are structured to facilitate the young child being submerged in more than one language--of having a growing child's mental possibilities expanded to include those provided by more than one "native" language. For a child who has a safe, loving, perceptually rich home to grow up in, the most important gift a parent can give is to provide the mental tools available from multiple language exposures.

There are some further advantages. It is clearly advantageous to a young adult to be fluent in one or more foreign languages; it expands social possibilities, as well as opportunities for travel and cross-cultural experiences. Moreover, any person who has native-level fluency in more than one language, can rely on that as a vocational, economic asset throughout life. When jobs are hard to come by, they are much more readily available to someone who is fluent in multiple languages.

In addition, further foreign languages are easier to learn if they are related to a language one already knows. For example, someone who knows English, already knows a lot about the grammatical structure and vocabulary of any other Indo-European language such as German, French, Russian, Italian, one of the Scandinavian languages, etc.

The question arises what particular languages one might best expose a young child to. English is an obvious choice: it is more widely spoken either as native language or as a second language than any other language in the world. There are about 350 million native speakers of English, but there are at least two billion more who know English in addition to their native language. It is, more than any other, the international language of commerce, science, and intercultural relations. It has a fairly complete Indo-European grammar, and an extensive vocabulary from which cognates in other Indo-European languages may be drawn.

Mandarin (specifically, "Standard Mandarin" or "Standard Chinese")is the second language of choice. It is of the Sino-Tibetan language family--very different from Indo-European--and is spoken natively by over one billion people throughout the world. This is more than any other language and, although it is predominantly found in Asia, especially China, it is also widely dispersed geographically.

The third choice is Arabic (specifically, "Modern Standard Arabic"), a Semitic language of the Afro-Asiatic family--very different from an Indo-European or a Sino-Tibetan language. It is spoken natively by over 400 million people, predominantly in the Middle-East but also widely throughout the world.

So there you have it in broad strokes. The best upbringing advantages you can give your baby, in addition to providing a safe, loving, perceptually stimulating home, is to expose a child--from about six months of age at least to age 8 or 10 years--to native speakers of Mandarin and Arabic, as nannies or baby sitters, as household friends, and through travel and exposure to foreign-language TV, movies, voice recordings, language training, and other programs. You will not only, thereby, expand your child's mental tools and social possibilities, you will be providing a rich aesthetic and vocational resource that will continue to serve throughout life. Moreover, you will be making it easier for the child (and adult) to learn additional languages later on.