Gary, Indiana was once known as the murder capital of the nation. It is home to one of the most famous families in the world, the Jacksons. It was hardly a place anyone would think was ideal for developing one’s linguistic and cultural competence skills. But, it happens to be the place where I was first introduced to cultural competence through language.
Over the span of four consecutive summers during my preteen years, my father enrolled my twin sister and I in a program run through the Gary Public Schools Corporation called Study Alternative International Languages (SAIL). The four-week program introduced black kids to cultures and languages not traditionally offered in urban schools such as: Chinese, Japanese, German, Arabic, and Russian. By the end of these four-week sessions, we could sound out words, carry on basic conversations, sing traditional songs, and understand cultural concepts. Through my education at SAIL, I developed an immense appreciation for cultures other than my own. I learned that there was value in understanding someone in the same way that they understand themselves: through their language, values, and heritage.
My SAIL days prepared me to navigate a world outside of my primarily brown community. I learned to not flinch or laugh when I heard unfamiliar languages spoken in public. I didn’t point when I saw people dressed in traditional clothing. In fact, I grew a thirst to surround myself with more ethnic and linguistic diversity, and to personally know and understand those who lived outside the bounds of my own community
I have seen what language learning and cross-cultural education can do for youth who may not have had the chance to leave their own neighborhoods and experience other ways of life and communication. In my life, practicing and becoming fluent in Spanish has forced me to both seek out my own identity and to become comfortable sharing it with others. When traveling through Latin America, for example, Spanish-speakers often want to speak English with me! And they want to know who I am and what culture I represent. There is a clear intersection between both of our desires to learn more about each other, which opens the door for a deeper kind of connection. These are moments that I embrace and look forward to in my travels.
In grad school I had classmates from all over the world. In one of my class workgroups, I told my Chinese friend that I knew a folk song in Mandarin. She did not believe me until I started to sing the song that I had learned during my SAIL summers years ago. She stared at me with simultaneous excitement and disbelief and even began to record me singing the song. Though my pronunciation was a little unrefined, the experience helped us bond in a different and more profound way. She often struggled with speaking and writing in English, toward which I was totally empathetic. To be able to communicate with her through this song, to be able to express my appreciation for her identity, was a mutually beneficial gift.
In sum, when one hears, sees and practices a language other than one’s native tongue, one learns more than just sounds, intonation, and grammar. One seeks to understand the emotions represented. One seeks the personal stories and conversations that act as cross-cultural connectors. Most importantly, one becomes fluent in human relationships and empathy.