How important is language study to anti-racist parenting?

I was catching up on my reading at The Root and read Rebecca Walker’s ruminations on the languages she might teach her son, Tenzin.

I’ve always loved languages.

I learned Spanish in high school by translating passages from One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. My mother bought a house in Mexico around the same time, and between my high school teacher and Miguel Partida, the man who managed the house and with whom I spent many hours discussing roofing tile and hot water heaters, I became fluent. I talked my way out of a Spanish prison with my Spanish (don’t ask), and expressed my admiration to former President Vicente Fox and his wife Marta when unexpectedly seated next to them at an event.

Years later as an undergrad at Yale, I studied Swahili because I had traveled to East Africa and fallen in love with someone who spoke Swahili, but also because I was studying post-colonialism and underdevelopment, and thought I might later work in that part of the world. From my knowledge of Swahili, I was able to pick up a tiny bit of Arabic, and now, following my love of language, I can say “hello” and “how are you” and “your child is beautiful” and “thank you” in about a dozen languages, including Thai.

All this to say, we’ve been talking about languages for Tenzin. I met Nathalie Jorge of Professor Pocket at a speech a few years ago. She gave me her Spanish for kids CD, and it has since become Tenzin’s favorite. He loves to sing about “los animales on la granja” and how there are no “dinosaurios” on the farm. I’m looking forward to bringing him with me to teach a writing workshop in Barcelona this summer for full immersion.

But we’re thinking about languages for the future. Read more…

Walker’s article made me feel embarrassed. Embarrassed–because while I think achieving fluency in languages other than one’s mother tongue makes interacting with and understanding other cultures easier, and that it is the height of arrogance and a mark of racism that most Americans can speak English (barely) and nothing else, the knowledge I gained during my six years of Spanish instruction some 20 years ago has faded. I can still read a little Spanish–enough to understand most advertisements targeting the local Latino community, but not enough to hold a conversation with a real human being. My tongue trips over the language that I learned, but never really used. A great example I am to my stepson, J., who is studying Spanish now. I can preach about the importance of learning at least one other language, but I’m not such a sterling role model. So, yeah, I’m embarrassed.

But Walker’s post also gave me an epiphany: Understanding another language and making sure that your offspring does too should be one of the fundamentals of anti-racist parenting. What better way to encourage respect for other races and cultures? Being able to greet someone in their native language is a very basic way to saying “I value you and what you have to offer.” So, it’s not too late to polish up my Spanish and maybe branch out into other languages. I can learn along with my son. We can watch telenovelas together and rent Spanish films. Ha! Looks like I’ve got another New Year’s resolution brewing.

Walker asked her readers:

What languages are you teaching your children and why? How are you teaching them?  How is it going?

I’ll add this: How important is language study to anti-racist parenting?



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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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