Hoping to raise more empathetic kids? A second language can help
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart” – Nelson Mandela
A second Language can help in raising empathetic kids
Language Learning is So Much More Than Verbs + Vocabulary
Over a decade ago, I started my career as a French teacher in the Midwestern United States. I set my sights on this career path for relatively selfish reasons at first: Language skills came naturally to me, and I was academically successful with it. Also, I personally wanted to travel the world. I chose my university in large part because they had a robust and affordable study abroad program. It allowed me, the daughter of a single mom in a low-income family, to spend my junior year traveling Europe. It launched a lifetime love of travel and experiencing other cultures for me and made me passionate about using my career to do the same for others.
During my first few years in the classroom, I took care to follow the curriculum, focusing on verb conjugations and vocabulary lists and properly structured sentences. Like a lot of American language teachers, if I was crunched for time (and I usually was), the lessons on culture were the first to be cut.
Over time, my perspective shifted. I started to care less about the verb conjugations and more about teaching my students to see beyond their relatively sheltered, mostly-white, Midwestern suburban lifestyle.
I started to embrace those “off-topic” moments when the conversation veered from the textbook lesson to the reason why a simple Bonjour, Monsieur/Madame is a key moment of respect expected by French shopkeepers, and how ignoring this cultural norm can cause us Americans to label the French as stereotypically rude.
Moments when the lightbulb goes off in these teenagers’ heads, when they see the real reason behind a stereotype and how simple language usage can make all the difference. Those moments are worth so much more than a perfect score on a vocabulary test.
Empathy is Everything.
It’s easy for children to believe there’s only one perspective when that’s all they see. When you grow up with people who look the same as you, who speak the same language, who shop at the same stores and who drive the same kinds of cars, it’s natural to believe this is how it is for everyone.
It’s why we, and I’m speaking especially of Americans here, are often unaware of our own blindspots. Most Americans, myself included, grow up in homogenous communities with little to no motivation to speak anything but English. We have enormous blindspots that many of us are only now becoming aware of.
At this moment, in June 2020, the United States is experiencing political unrest and demand for social change, unlike anything we’ve seen in recent history. Our inability to see perspectives outside of our own personal bubbles has come to a tipping point. We’re being faced with our own societal dearth of empathy.
The Black Lives Matter movement is all about finding empathy for others. To put yourself in another person’s shoes and recognize that “Yes, their experience is different from mine.”
Empathy is why I can believe that, all other factors being equal, my experience as a white woman and my counterpart’s experience as a Black woman in America are vastly different.
Trevor Noah recently said “When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, ‘I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being”― Trevor Noah
Worldwide, there is a revolutionary conversation happening about this very basic truth: other people have culture and identity that exist beyond me and my own narrow perspective.
I’d like to think that my decades of studying another language, living abroad, and engaging in conversations with classrooms of students has helped to foster my own understanding of this.
Now it’s time to pass that along to the most important humans I’ll ever teach: my own children.
How can Languages help Foster Empathy in Children?
Learning different languages is an important key to fostering empathy and understanding in our children. It can begin at home – even if you don’t remember your high school French or you live in a monolingual society. As parents, it’s our job to show children that yes, differences exist.
Different ≠ Bad/Wrong/Dangerous.
Different is interesting. It’s necessary. It’s important. It’s valuable.
And we can be different and still get along and find commonalities.
If you are hoping to raise empathetic children, languages can be a great aid.
When children are exposed to a different language, they grow up recognizing that there is more than one way to view the world. They grow up seeing “different” as a wonderful opportunity for curiosity, not a thing to be frightened by or to make fun of.
I have the tendency to overthink these things. I’ve caught myself hesitating to read my child a bedtime story in French because I feel like my skills are rusty since taking a break from the classroom.
Ridiculous, I know. Many of us Americans have trouble with imperfection. Me, especially.
But we don’t have to overthink how to teach empathy. We just need to start trying.
Perfection is not necessary. Effort is. I’ll leave you with a few resources to consider. Let’s as parents do what we can to make this world a little bit better for everyone. It starts right here in our homes, with the generation we’ve been entrusted to raise.
We have compiled a long list of resources that can help you in raising more empathetic, understanding children. Please tell us if you have any other favorites, we would love to add to the list.
Articles that might help you start your kids Bilingual Journey
Articles that might help you address Inclusivity and Racism
Where can I find Kids’ Books about Diversity, Inclusion, and Racism in various languages?
(We will add books and resources to this list as we continue to find resources about this topic, if you have any good resources please help us add to the list.)
English Books for Kids about Diversity, Inclusion, and Racism
Spanish Books for Kids about Diversity, Inclusion, and Racism
German Books for Kids about Diversity, Inclusion, and Racism
Chinese Books for Kids about Diversity, Inclusion, and Racism
French Books for Kids about Diversity, Inclusion, and Racism
Italian Books for Kids about Diversity, Inclusion, and Racism
Portuguese Books for Kids about Diversity, Inclusion, and Racism
Dutch Books for Kids about Diversity, Inclusion, and Racism
Join the conversation and help us add more resources and titles to this list at instagram.com/timtimtombooks. As parents we can make a difference and raise more empathetic kids.
Leigh Ann Zerr is a freelance writer and blogger with over 10 years of experience teaching French and English. She resides in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband, daughter, and dogs, and travels every chance she gets.
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