I was about to catch a flight when I met an Ethiopian father traveling with his three young boys. The boys were giving the father a hard time, and I and other passengers had no choice but to stare.
I approached the boys and tried playing with them. They did not speak any local language, so we began to converse in English.
Surprisingly, the boys were friendly and grateful for my company. It did not take them long to befriend me, divulging where they lived and where they go to school.
I was puzzled that these same boys were riotous with their own father just a while ago. The father, who seemed to be in his early fifties, interrupted, introduced himself and told me I was so good with his children.
He proudly said that his children are American citizens by birth, and that they were currently on vacation. He mentioned that his wife is resting back in the United States after having their fourth child.
We chatted a little while before I mustered the courage to ask why he has such a hard time communicating with his charming boys.
He laughed a little and gave a shocking answer, “because I am learning to speak English, while my boys can only speak English and French.”
I applaud him for making sure that his children learn such international languages at such an early age—it could be of great value to their resumes later in life.
I asked why he never bothered to teach his boys the local language he fluently speaks. Annoyingly, he claimed that there was no value to it. Unfortunately, he is not alone. I have met many parents in Ethiopia that struggle with their children as a result of a language barrier.
Raising children to be multilingual while giving little attention to local languages has become a trend among parents. They are unaware of the great importance of introducing their children to local languages and cultures, most importantly to effectively communicate with their children.
It took me a while to realise the importance of learning local languages as a child. My parents struggled to teach me their native language. This was because they started when I was a teenager, after I had already learned other languages.
Local languages are fundamental to effective communication within a family. Knowing a language improves cognitive abilities and is a significant addition to our professional as well as personal lives. It expands our horizons and makes us able communicators.
I have seen many young people who, born and raised in rural areas, failed to include the local language they grew up speaking in their resumes. It is rarely considered an asset.
It is just as bad that some are not even able to speak any of the international languages. I have had job interviews with graduate applicants who boldly say they cannot effectively communicate in English, despite having graduated from a higher learning institution where the entire curriculum is in English.
Despite the obvious disconnect that could take place between parents and children, and the long-term harm the latter could encounter, for some it has become important to teach children international languages while overlooking the local ones.
I have met many parents in Ethiopia where both spouses either come from different cultural or linguistic backgrounds but have failed to pass on multilingual skills to their children. Creating such opportunities for children allows parents to pass on their languages and also their cultural heritage.
Learning another language means learning about a culture. Cultural heritage not only refers to a country’s traditions, customs, norms and values but also language and the way the members of that culture communicate.
The gift of language is one of the most important talents that parents can pass on to their children.
Being aware of different languages and cultures from an early age makes cultural diversity more natural. It will encourage children to be more open-minded and see cultural and linguistic differences as an asset and an opportunity to learn from. In a country full of linguistic diversity, it is a shame to deprive children of the opportunity to learn local languages.
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