Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Bigotry Negatively Impacts Learning and Intelligence

by Pa Rock

My home of record, rustic McDonald County, Missouri, is actually the southwest corner county in Missouri - bumping up against two other counties in Missouri, Delaware County, Oklahoma, and Benton County, Arkansas.  Benton County, of course, is the home of Tyson Foods, Jones Truck Lines, and America's largest retailer, Wal-Mart.  Sadly, very little of Benton  County's wealth sloshes over the northern border into McDonald County - nor is that ever very likely to happen.

There are some wonderful things in McDonald County (rivers, campgrounds, scenic drives, beautiful stands of pine trees), but there is also quite a bit of poverty.  It is a place where change comes mighty damned hard.

But change has happened.  Over the past two decades McDonald County has witnessed a cultural transformation as thousands of Hispanics have come north and settled in small towns to work in local factories and food processing plants.  Chicken growing and processing are big business in that area and traditionally poor wage-payers.  The Hispanics who have poured into McDonald County over the past twenty years have worked hard, often doing two eight-hour shifts per person in order to survive and earn money to send home.  And many have prospered, bought homes, and established businesses of their own.

I spoke with a school board member early on as that transition was beginning to take place and suggested that in addition to teaching the little Hispanic kids English, it would be an ideal time to also start teaching the Anglo children Spanish.  Little children, after all, have the ability to pick up foreign languages much easier than their bewildered  parents and grandparents do.

That school board member told me politely, but rather firmly, that teaching American kids to talk Mexican was never going to be a priority of that school district.  Today that attitude is still pervasive in much of America.  People want the newcomers to assimilate and to forget their own unique cultural backgrounds.

Well, there are a couple of problems with that attitude.  First of all, unless the teabaggers take over the nation, we are not going to be able to go into people's homes and force them to use English only in their own domiciles.  Many Hispanic families realize the value of having children who are bilingual - even if the majority culture does not.  Just a very few years from now, for instance, the small factories and industries will still have employees who speak English and employees who speak Spanish.  (Yes, they will!)  And who will most likely be the supervisors and line foremen in charge of the diverse workplace?  My money is on the young people who are fluent in both languages.

Today there was an article in the new Newsweek entitled "Why It's Smart to Be Bilingual."  Turns out, being bilingual makes for smarter kids!  Among other things, including the facts that being bilingual is  a plus when it comes to college admissions and job prospects, the article had this to say:

"According to several different studies, command of two or more languages bolsters the ability to focus in the face of distraction, decide between competing alternatives, and disregard irrelevant information.  These essential skills are grouped together, known in brain terms as 'executive function.'  The research suggests they develop ahead of time in bilingual children, and are already evident in kids as young as 3 or 4."

 Years ago I sat out in my front yard at my little house in Naha, Okinawa, and watched a group of pre-schoolers playing in the neighbor's driveway.  The group included Americans and Japanese.  I remember being fascinated with their ability to communicate verbally with one another as they played.  Those kids were teaching each other English and Japanese!

Instead of sitting around whining about immigration, we ought to be embracing it as an opportunity for intellectual growth and development.  Let the bigots be as dumb as they want to be, but they have no right to try to place limits on the intellectual abilities and potential of everybody else!


Xobekim said...

Growing up in Kansas City my mom frequently asked me to ride my bike to the store. I'd always go to Marino's Market, because it sat on the same high ridge as our house, but was about a mile away. Going down steep hills was never a problem, but climbing back up was hard work.

Mr. and Mrs. Marino were from the old country, Italy. When alone they'd speak Italian to one another.

One day Mrs. Marino was speaking to her husband, unaware that anyone else was in the store.

A few days later the Marino's got a visit from some good Americans reminding them of the importance of speaking English in this country.

Those forerunners of the Tea Party's English only policy wore the familiar uniform of the Ku Klux Klan.

School boards need to focus on educating children to compete and live successful lives, not perpetuate prejudice.

Don said...

Right with you, Xobekim!
I grew up in a small town in Ohio and the same prejudice ran rampant through our streets and schools.
In a way, not much has changed. The price we pay for a belief in American exceptionalism is a willful ignorance of the world around us. We seem determined never to learn from our own mistakes. And be they cultural or political, these mistakes are pounding us into an increasing irrelevance in the minds of those with whom we share the planet.