Can learning more languages help fight xenophobia? If yes, how?
I am writing this post today as part of a series called A-Z of Raising Multilingual Children hosted by Annabelle of The Piri-Piri Lexicon. All through the month of February, bloggers from all over the world have taken part to talk about different ways to grow multilingual children. Scroll down to the end of the post to read the other posts in the blog-hop.
I am talking about X for Xenophobia and how we can help decrease the chances of our children becoming xenophobic by teaching them more languages.
A few weeks ago, A video popped up in my feed on Facebook: Two young guys were taken off a plane in America because someone heard them speak in Arabic. I am sure there is more to the story then just that, but the discussion that followed in the comments was very interesting. People called it racism. They said, it was all because they spoke in Arabic. Clearly, with the situation in the US, everybody is scared of Arabs, I understand that. They said it was ignorance… unfair… ‘they are victimizing them’… and so on… then there were those who said, they deserved it. ‘How dare they speak Arabic in America?!’ This was a case of Xenophobia.
What is Xenophobia?
Xenophobia is the fear and stigmatization of foreigners (strangers) and foreign places. People who look different, speak a different language, or have different customs can appear threatening to those who are used to only one particular ethnic group, lifestyle or set of behaviors.
It got me thinking, what if this situation had taken place on an International flight? Say… Emirates Airlines bound for Dubai via London. (*Emirates, because they are the no.1 airlines in the world at the moment. This has nothing to do with being Arab!) There would be Americans, the British, Europeans, Arabs from all over the Middle East, Asians from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and more nationalities because they will be transiting from Dubai to their destinations. That’s how flights from the US/Canada come to this part of the world. (It takes anywhere between 18-24 hours or more and people change at least two planes. )
On the flight, there would be people speaking in so many languages – English, Arabic, French, Dutch, Hindi, Urdu, Malay, Spanish, Mandarin too. Now, imagine if someone got up and yelled to his brother in Arabic in the back seat? Would anyone mind? Umm… No. Even if they didn’t know Arabic, they would simply smile and look the other way or get up to see what the problem was and see if they could help.
There would be people trying to converse with complete strangers in whatever language either of them would understand in. They would make full conversations or small chit chats and get along. If someone said, ‘Bismillah’ (In the name of God) while pushing his heavy bag into the overhead compartment, they would understand that that is how the Arabs do stuff. They say God’s name before, after and during everything!! (No kidding! That isn’t a joke!) That is the same thing as ‘Hai Bhagwan! (in Hindi) or ‘Oh Jesus’ or ‘Ya Quda’ (in Urdu).
Most of those on the flight, I am sure, would be atleast Bilingual if not Multilingual. It is not necessary that all of them would be speaking Arabic (as they are Dubai bound) but I am sure every one would speak more than one language.
Trust me, if you are used to international travel, you will definitely agree with me that what I am saying is right. Racism and ignorance of this sort is really hard to come by on International flights. This is because people accept that there will be people of different cultures and different backgrounds speaking different languages travelling with them.
This got me wondering about why it was that multilinguals tolerate differences better than those who are monolingual. Is Learning Languages the Solution to Racism?
Despite the increase in ethnic groups in all parts of the world, racism and xenophobia still exists. The current refugee crisis is increasing hatred and fear. Although, people want to help each other, there still exists fear.
Actually… fear is not the right word. Ignorance, is what it is. Racism stems from our lack of understanding of cultural differences. So, the first step towards solving racial discrimination is clear: We must address ignorance and start to build understanding between different races.
I like to think of xenophobes as little toddlers who have not been allowed to mingle socially. Have you seen how an overly sensitive toddler or baby is unwilling to friend a new person. It is because he cannot understand you or make his needs known. He is afraid of you… but if you approach very gently, babble a bit with them and try to make friends, they do relax. Some come out of their shells faster but some babies take a little longer.
If we start, introducing our children to diversity from a very young age, it is quite possible that we can help defeat xenophobia. One of the things that I teach my children, is that we all need the same basic things in life and that inspite of all those colors and size and shape, we are all just the same. We all work to fill our tummies and to keep our young safe. We all need love and we all love hugs.
Teaching more languages has a lot of benefits. You can scroll below to see A-Z of those reasons but here, I’d like to say that, when we teach more languages we educate our children to accept others for who they are. ‘It is okay to be different, I can still understand you.’ When we teach them multiple languages, we open their minds to see each garden for what it is.
Xenophobia stems from Ignorance. Just think. Knowing an entire language is a great deal of knowledge in itself. When we are surrounded by people speaking in a language we don’t understand, we automatically shut off and feel alienated from them. Learning a little bit and taking interest in what is being spoken will open up our minds to a whole new world. However, this doesn’t mean that learning languages is the entire solution but it is ONE way.
There are two main reasons why people learn languages:
- Out of interest. Either you yourself take the initiative to learn a new language or you are a parent who wants your child to be multilingual.
- Out of need. When you are travelling, working ( as an expat or otherwise) or interested in marrying someone, etc. you need to know atleast the basics of what is being spoken.
How to Fight Xenophobia by Learning More Languages:
I like languages. I love to hear people speak. Watching people interact and talking to complete strangers and finding all about them gives me joy but I wasn’t always this way. It took me years of learning, watching and training myself to step out of my comfort zone. I wasn’t xenophobic as such but an introvert. Xenophobia, is just a fear of the unknown. As I was saying earlier, they are just ordinary introverts scared to step out of their comfort zones. The reason, they are scared is because they have never been taught to see beauty in nature. They never fully learnt to appreciate diversity or that it was okay to stand out.
Xenophobia isn’t by birth. Children are not born racist. Here is my solution to help defeat xenophobia: People grow up to discriminate because they have not been taught to appreciate. If each one of us focused on nobody else’s but just our children and taught them to have an open heart by showing them the different colors and songs of this world, we can grow a more friendlier world.
Here is what I say to my kids, when they hear someone speak a different language.
I encourage you to:
- Hear them speak their language: It doesn’t matter that you don’t understand them. Take the initiative to learn. Hear them speak. We don’t understand birds singing or dogs barking but do we hate them for not speaking our language?
- Ask for a translation: Ask them to tell you what they just said. It is always fun to know.
- Learn their language. Ask them to teach you to say a few sentences.
- Step out of your comfort zone. If you meet some one who speaks a different language but they don’t speak your language, it is okay. Talk to them. You may not understand them clearly but you can communicate enough to find out atleast their name.
- Learn about them: Cookie points if you find out their favourite meal or toy.
- Travel: If you can go to a foreign country, don’t miss the chance!
- Befriend them: If there is a new kid who is different, talk to them. If you find someone being bullied, stand up for them. If they are a victim of bad behaviour, definitely be their friend!
- Celebrate their traditions and cultures with them. Have some fun and enjoy how other people celebrate. Eat what they eat and wear what they wear. Hear the stories and sing their songs.
Learning languages is not the only solution to fighting Xenophobia. It has to be at so many levels but by teaching our children to accept and celebrate diversity, we can all take that first step to setting them on the right path.
This post is part of the A-Z of Raising Multilingual Children. Click the image below to read more articles on the topic.