This Is How The U.S. Government Is Helping My Son Become Bilingual

by Sara Ahmed
triloks / iStock

In light of the news that President Trump is supporting a plan to reduce the entry of immigrants into the United States, I find myself surprised, yet again, by the radical xenophobic stance coming from my government.

One of the proposed criteria of the plan mandates preferential treatment for English-speaking immigrants. I find that so unsettling because 33 years ago, I would not have been able to meet that condition as an immigrant trying to find a better life. Plus, research is pretty conclusive that only through immersion can people truly learn a language.

So this biased criteria reeks of prejudice against the population of immigrants who would be the least likely to have access or exposure to the English language — those who are the most disfranchised and in need of an opportunity to better their lives.

I loathe that this government has made it popular to have a distaste for people with bilingual capabilities, as if speaking another language somehow diminishes a person’s American-ness. Can we please acknowledge the very simple reason that the entire world has historically wanted to come and live in the land of opportunity in the first place? We are inclusive. That’s our thing. It’s what we do, ‘Murica.

Like many first-generation immigrant kids, I grew up in a bilingual household where I was exposed to Urdu (the national language of Pakistan) at home and English in Chicago schools. However, as I had my own children and settled into my own parenting life, I realized my kids were being raised without the benefits of dual languages. We primarily spoke English, and it almost escaped my attention that I was raising my own children in a monolingual household until I realized that they thought emoji was a foreign language! I had taken for granted the idea that my kids would just somehow absorb the language I had grown up with without any conscious effort from me.

Though more than half the world’s population is bilingual, the U.S. lags behind considerably, with just 20% of the American population identifying themselves as bilingual. This is also troubling because statistics show that only 1% of Americans become proficient in a foreign language they study in school even though 93% of American high schools still have some foreign-language requirement in place. I didn’t want my children to be part of this statistic knowing full well about the plethora of benefits that come from being bilingual.

To begin with, being able to speak more than one language can slow down the process of dementia and Alzheimer’s by years. Bilingual speakers speakers can also process information better and manage conflict resolution more effectively because their brains have higher aptitudes for interpreting verbal and nonverbal cues. Knowing a second language can even help people concentrate better, multitask better, and improve the brain’s executive functions.

So while hunting for summer camps last year, I came across the Indus Arts Council, a local organization that teaches a three-week, full-day immersion camp in Urdu every summer, for free. You read that correctly — free! The camp is funded by StarTalk, a National Security Language Initiative that is overseen by the National Security Agency (otherwise known as the NSA). Basically, the U.S. government decided to fund education for 10 “critical-need” foreign languages back in 2006 in order to encourage American students to master these languages for the purpose of improving international relationships and strengthening the country’s national security.

So in my pursuit of trying to teach my son Urdu, I received help from the Department of Defense, Department of Education, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. I find this ironic given that the current political climate in the U.S. doesn’t offer much patriotic support for bilingualism. But there are huge reminders everywhere of past inclusive policies our government has tried to cultivate. The U.S. government has been funding these language-immersion programs for over 10 years now in an attempt to help Americans master foreign languages like Turkish, Arabic, Chinese, and Urdu.

Pretty cool, right?

And it’s in direct conflict with the unattainable plan that President Trump is supporting.

My son has had a really rewarding experience by going to this immersion camp for the last two summers. Aside from learning conversational Urdu, his confidence in attempting to speak it has skyrocketed. And he’s proud to know another language that is no longer just “code” that Mom and Dad speak when they’re trying have a private conversation around the kids. I am also working harder than ever at speaking Urdu to my children because if there’s one thing the Trump presidency has done, it has amplified our differences. And no matter how hard I want to maintain the cultural identity I’ve fostered all these decades, I have to step firmly into the hyphenated space of Pakistani-American.

Raising your child as a bilingual speaker takes a little bit of effort, but even if you don’t know a second language, it isn’t that daunting. Aside from finding a local summer program and using helpful apps, the main thing is to consistently immerse your child in the new language with confidence.

Given that more than half of the world population is bilingual and the list of benefits to speaking dual languages keeps growing, I feel great about investing the extra effort every summer to help my son receive an immersive and unique experience. And it’s icing on the cake that my government helped create another bilingual American.

To quote the great writer Khaled Hosseini, “[…] if culture is a house, then language was the key to the front door.” Let’s try to open as many doors as we can for our children.