Americans are impressed with bilingual children. While putting in 320 hours of intensive Hindi-Urdu for one of the Peace Corps' early India projects, our group was confronted with a slide showing an American boy of about 10 going for his first taxi ride alone in New Delhi. The accompanying dialogue, which we were supposed to memorize, was such a lengthy conversational pleasantry that the entire class of college graduates groaned in grudging admiration. For us it was a struggle to remember how to buy a papaya, and here was this rather impudent looking child effortlessly finding his way around a strange city.
But American children rarely have the chance to become as fluent in another language as that youngster. Unless they are the sons or daughters of diplomats, anthropologists or AID officials, American children are usually presented with a second language to infrequently and too late in their development to learn it well.
This is not the case in other countries. Even in the isolated patch of Indian jungle where I spent my Peace Corps years, where children sat on mud floors and recited their lessons in unison, bilingualism was considered a realistic goal. In fact, these barefoot, impoverished children were expected to learn not only English, but Hindi and Sanskrit in addition to their native Bengali. These children did not have the benefit of "Sesame Street" or toys of any kind or crayons or, in fact, any of the materials that we consider crucial to the development of intelligence in young children. Nevertheless, they learned to speak, read and write with some degree of skill in four languages before they reached eighth grade.
With all the audio-visual equipment and educational aids at our disposal, with all our expertise and million-dollar school systems, we still find it difficult to teach our children adequate reading and writing skills in English, much less require fluency in a second language.
India has proved it can be done; serious, effective language learning is possible in the primary grades, and doesn't have to be expensive. The trick is to teach languages that are spoken by some portion of the population (so the program will have some relevances to daily life) and to expect that all children are capable of learning them.
And all children are capable, if they are taught correctly. Learning a language is not like learning geography. To survive a few years of geography you have to be interested, and your interest can be sharpened by four-color maps, National Geographic specials and travelers' tales of foreign lands. But learning a language requires only that you live in the midst of it at a time your brain is most ready to absorb it.
In Quebec, where I now teach, it is evident to parents who have tried it that the best time to expose children to a second language is in the preschool years. Two-year-olds who play with children who speak another language are comfortable in that language within a year, and verbose in the next year. As I write, my four-year-old is carrying on a conversation with her doll in French. It is a complicated dialogue, involving lost purses, vaccinations and shopping for potatoes. She has spent the last two years playing with a French friend at our house or theirs, and is now completely at home in either language. Her friend is not as fluent. Because we live in a farming community where everyone from the postmistress to the veterinarian speak French, our children learn the dominant language. In the predominantly English suburbs of Montreal, many French children acquire an extraordinary command of English before they enter kindergarten, while the English children barely learn to say "bonjour."
When preschool contact is impractical, as it often is, English parents who are serious about their children's French language education send them to French schools starting in kindergarten. The years of friendship and informal contact with French students, in addition to the rather serious study of grammar the French insist upon, produces impeccably bilingual children.
The difficulties between French and English in Quebec have not come from bilingualism, as some claim, but from the lack of it. The French feel snubbed by a gas-station attendant who cannot count their change in French; the English huddle together because the French are "different." Serious bilingual education for everyone could change matters in one generation.
In America, the appearance of bilingual schools in some states is an encouraging trend in education. It shows not only that bilingualism is now seen as a realistic possibility for children, but that it is being taught properly. The easiest and most pleasant way to learn a second language is to be immersed in it as a child: to know what to yell when the batter makes a hit, to learn words and ideas that have no meaning in your mother tongue. When language is taught like geography, it requires a herculean exercise of memory, the grace to laugh at your embarrassing mistakes and the self-discipline to practice at every opportunity. Most people are not so dedicated.
The increase in numbers of Spanish-speaking immigrants to the United States presents unilingual American childen with a rare opportunity for human development. Growing up bilingual ensures that every nuance of accent is reproduced exactly, every aspect of the culture is deeply understood. Children who are so informed about a people different from themselves grow to be understanding, compassionate human beings -- the sort the world so urgently needs.