While washing her hands a few minutes ago, Kira began to sing softly to herself--something she often does. This time, though, the words of her song were "pani agua water" repeated over and over.
Nicole and I smiled. "Pani" is the Punjabi word for what English calls water, "agua" is the Spanish. We often give Kira the choice between the three at dinner after she asks for juice. You'd think that a kid would get upset by that sooner or later, but for now at least, she seems to like the choice. She'll actually pick "pani" or "water" or sometimes "pani and agua mixed"--the sense of satisfaction at knowing an extra name is apparently as good as the extra sugar and flavor in juice.
And now she's singing them.
Besides being incredibly cute, what does growing up like this mean? Although Nicole gives certain commands in Spanish, it's not like we're actually planning on teaching Kira fluent Spanish in the home (my mother tried hard to teach us Spanish when I was little, and not one of us ever got good at it). And although I know a little Punjabi, not even I can carry on a conversation in it: I'm lucky to get out a coherent sentence.
So what, in the long run, does Kira get out of learning non-English words at home?
A few possibilities come to mind:
1) Even without fluency, language brings a sense of connection. I really believe that something as simple as having sung about agua as a five-year-old will help Kira more easily access and appreciate the diverse cultural backgrounds of people she meets and works with. And knowing words like pani now definitely helps her connect with her sense of being an Indian, of wanting to know stories about that part of her familial past.
2) Learning bits and pieces of different languages will help Kira become a stronger analytical thinker. She and I had an interesting brief conversation, for example, about whether pani was "really" water: she was sort of fascinated to think about the fact that water and pani are both names for the substance and not just for each other ("pani" serving as a sort of code-word for what is truly named "water.") Playing with language is helping her consider how systems might work. The extra practice organizing and reorganizing knowledge almost certainly has value in more areas than just cultural identity.
3) By learning bits of multiple languages, Kira is developing a heightened awareness of sound as well as meaning in language. I'd imagine that this affects her sense of English as well as of Punjabi, Spanish, and whatever else she happens to absorb at home. Being able to more keenly appreciate language on the level of sound certainly makes life more beautiful. It may also contribute to a love of literature later in life, something which I think has numerous benefits. And it may ultimately serve to make Kira more persuasive, since the sounds of what we write and say affect people sometimes as much as the content.
Although English was the only "complete" language I learned in the home, I think I benefited from hearing Spanish, some Navajo, and a little Punjabi around as a kid. And I think Kira will gain more than might be imagined from being exposed to multiple languages at home, even though she probably won't learn, in the home, to actually speak more than one.
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