Children: The Value of Cultural Diversity

When a foreign culture is revealed to a child, a world of possibilities is brought to light.  When children are provided with experiences where they are immersed in new sounds, language, dress, cuisine, songs and fables, it arouses their curiosity to explore, branch out, and thrive with newfound awareness.  Exposure and participation in a culture awakens and engages a child’s senses, and they develop a hunger and a zeal for discovery and a yearning to learn and grow.  Learning a new language and being exposed to another culture brings vividness, awe, and self-awareness. “What our children focus their attention on will become the seeds of their personality and the story of their life,” wrote Todd Kashdan, a professor of psychology at George Mason University. “Thus, let’s train our children to become curious explorers and help them live a rich, energizing, meaningful life.”

In cultivating a child’s enthusiastic understanding and appreciation of diverse ways of living, we are really facilitating positive regard and the implicit message that our differences are valuable and honorable. As Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Pascual-Leone writes, “In teaching our children empathy we are giving them a crucial skill for leading a successful and happy life. Empathy provides a strong foundation for listening, communications, collaboration and problem-solving, critical skills in a rapidly changing and diverse world.” By giving a value to differences, one begins to see how we are fortified by difference.

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Children have many benefits to gain from learning a new language and being exposed to a new culture.   While it has been established that the cognitive benefits of learning languages are wide-ranging—from problem solving skill and the ability to tap into a wellspring of creativity to more fluent communication in one’s mother tongue—perhaps the most important, is the ability to examine and reflect on experience from more than one perspective.

As Josette Hendrix, Director of the Northwest Language and Cultural Center, puts it, “Learning a new language is like opening a door into a different perception and understanding of the cosmos. You learn to think differently!  Every language has its own thought forms, and certain concepts and idiomatic expressions are fundamentally untranslatable.  In English we say, “You are right.” The French say, “Tu a raison”—literally, “You have reason.”  The Bulgarians say, “pPav see”—literally, “straight, upright you are.”  All these would be translated correctly to mean you are right, yet they are each subtly different in connotation. Then, in French we say “penser à”—to think at—which is much more direct than the English “think about,” suggesting an examination from all around.  In Bulgarian we say “mislim za”—thinking for—the connotation being of a more purposeful or practical nature.  It becomes obvious that much more is lost in translation than is usually realized. There are countless examples like these, and the subtleties are delightful and intriguing.”

We live in an extraordinary era, with instant communication, ever-changing technology, and a global economy. These forces certainly have, and will continue to have, the potential to shape our world rapidly in powerful ways.  Right now, it feels so important to take this ripe moment, when we come into contact with diversity more than ever before, to teach our children to cherish and treasure the planet’s numerous unique and beautiful cultures.  If we do so, it’s possible that, rather than becoming a monoculture void of the magnificence and diversity of differing perspectives or a species stifled by fear driven by ignorance, our world will emerge as a vast and vibrant array of global citizens encompassing rich cultures alive and preserved through stories, song, cuisine, art, wisdom and language.

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At the Northwest Language and Cultural Center on Whidbey Island, it is our mission to inspire intercultural awareness and understanding so that each person contributes to a more peaceful and harmonious global community now.  We offer ongoing classes for people of all ages, chat groups, language immersion programs for children and adults, afterschool programs, language of food series, school outreach and residency programs.  Through these opportunities, we preserve and honor diversity while building bridges of understanding and appreciation.  We continuously engage people in the study of language and cultural enrichment, so that learning generates understanding and respect for cultural roots.