Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Why Raise Bilingual Kids?

Big Blue Marble
Well, first of all, if you teach your kids a language that might help them in their careers, that's an easy one. You teach your kids another language to give them more opportunities in life. But what about my kids? I speak to them in Hebrew, so unless they grow up to be the Ambassadors to Israel (or double agent international spies like their dad), knowing how to speak Hebrew will do nothing for them.

So why am I harassing them with Hebrew? They're obviously more comfortable speaking English, so why do I insist? Why not just speak English and stop confusing these poor kids?

But then I remember. When you grow up in a small country like Israel, where people speak in a language that's different from the language of universal popular culture, you become aware of living in a small part of a big world. As kids, we grew up watching movies with subtitles, and for us, there were no such things as foreign movies, because most movies were foreign.

Arguably, when you grow up thinking you're right at the center of civilization, you may end up with a more ethnocentric world view. Sure, this is a generalization that may depend on education and on economic/social status, but still, and I'm saying this with zero judgement, it makes sense that people who live in a place they consider a cultural center would be less interested in other cultures.

That's why I insist. Beyond learning a second language to advance their careers, and even beyond my need for my kids to know an important part of their father's heritage, I need them to know, especially because they do live in the popular cultural center of the world, that there are other cultures, and that other cultures are just as worthy.

I'm very interested in politics, and I wish I could vote, but naturalized Americans can't keep their other citizenships, and I'm not ready to let go of the "Citizen of the World" identity I had created for myself in my less-cynical early 20s. And I'm not ready for my kids to do the same.

Teaching my kids a second language may or may not help their careers, but more importantly, and that's my early-20s-self talking again (because it never really left--it’s just well-hidden by defense mechanisms), raising bilingual kids may make it a better society. I like to imagine I'm thinking globally and acting locally, one Hebrew word at a time.

Israel has many problems, don't get me wrong, and I definitely wouldn't call it a utopia of universal empathy, but at least we grew up knowing we were part of something bigger, and I want my kids to know that too.

Growing up in Israel, Big Blue Marble, from PBS, was my favorite show. It showed kids and teens from all over the world, playing, dancing, and being kids. Here's the opening. If you're as old as I am, as soon as you hear this music, you'll be five years old again, sitting on the couch, dreaming about the big world out there.

We forget that. We grow old and cynical, and we forget our place in the world. And that's why I raise bilingual kids. Because I still believe in the big blue marble.


1. The post has now been published on The Good Men Project: Living in a Small Part of a Big World
2. It was also a part of a blogging carnival about raising multilingual kids, at The Head of the Heard: Raising Multilingual Kids Blogging Carnival: Hidden Opportunities


  1. I have lots of reasons for wanting my son to be bilingual, but I had never really thought in depth about the potential it has for making the world a (slightly) better place.

  2. I really liked your focus on the cultural benefits of speaking more than one language. Learning Welsh since I moved to Wales six years ago has really opened my eyes to a range of issues and events that I'd probably not have encountered if I'd not learned the language.

  3. I loved BBM as a kid, too! :) And it's been so much fun seeing JJ grow up learning bits of Spanish (from daycare) and Italian (from Nonna). Their minds are so much more flexible at that age. The whole old dog, new tricks adage.

  4. As an ESL instructor I really enjoyed this post, specially your insight on the importance of learning a second language. I've also made a point out of teaching English to my kids (Spanish being our native tongue) perhaps from the outer edges of the center-of-the-universe that English-speaking countries like the U.S. and Britain have turned into. Once again, excellent write-up.

  5. You think differently when you speak multiple languages.

  6. Adam Beck - Bilingual MonkeysAugust 4, 2013 at 4:58 AM

    Oren, I enjoyed this, thanks. I can identify with that tension between "old and cynical" and "the big blue marble." Like you, I try to hold onto the idea that our efforts *do* matter to the world (and beyond), even when we can't clearly see their impact. And I agree that raising a bilingual child is not only a personal plus, it adds value to the Big Blue Marble, too.

    Cheers from Japan,


    Adam Beck
    Bilingual Monkeys

  7. It's definitely hard to see the small positive differences we make (probably the small harmful things we add too, fortunately).

  8. Thank you Oren! wonderful Post. well said. and as we say in Hebrew- TODA תודה

  9. I really enjoyed this post. I'm raising my girls to be bilingual, but I must admit that my motivation isn't as admirable as yours; it's simply so that I can talk to them in my own mother tongue (English, which is a different language to where we live - Holland).

    I love your "Citizen of the World" idea, and totally agree that raising bilingual children adds to that ethos!

  10. I think that no matter how I'll be in the US, I'm still a different person depending on the language I speak (if just because of the nature of the two languages), so there's some of that, too, probably. I probably want my kids to know the full picture of my identity.

  11. Great post. We're having this conversation about our oldest right now, which means we're really having the conversation about all three of them. One of the schools near us offers a Spanish immersion program. I like the idea of them each speaking a different language. It was an opportunity I didn't have until high school and it never really took. (Probably shouldn't have taken Latin.)

    Extra points for the Big Blue Marble reference. Well played.

  12. Thanks! One of my wife's brothers married a Russian woman, and the other married a Colombian woman, so when the three first cousins are together, they speak three different languages with their parents, which is crazy, but in a good way.



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