Crossing Linguistic and Cultural Borders

By Janine Schall

The majority of my childhood and teen years were spent in a small, rural Midwestern town. It was a great place to grow up; safe, good schools, and nice people. I learned a lot about myself and about the world in that little town and when I left after college, in most ways I had an excellent foundation for my future life.

However, in one particular way that place failed me. In the ’70s and ’80s, almost the entire population in that geographical location was White, English-speaking, some variety of Christian, and middle or working class. I grew up surrounded by people who looked like me, sounded like me, worshipped like me, and shared values with me. Life there did very little to prepare me for living in a diverse and global society.

cultural borders

Fortunately, I had parents who tried their best to show me different ways of life and we attended a church that was deeply involved in global social justice issues. And, of course, I had books.

Children’s and adolescent literature in the ’70s and ’80s was not particularly diverse, but even so I learned about people different from myself through literature. The field still has troubling and well-documented issues with diversity, but there are also many fantastic books that can help children cross linguistic and cultural borders.

Culture shapes our lives in ways that are both often unnoticed and deeply rooted. Our own culture is so familiar to us that it becomes invisible, so innately understood that it feels both normal and inevitable. Of course, what feels “normal” and “just how things are” to us may be unusual and strange to someone from another culture! Children’s books set in cultures different from our own can support children as they think about the many ways people live in this world.

Lailah’s Lunchbox by Reem Faruqi tells the story of young Lailah, who is thrilled that she will finally be allowed to fast during Ramadan. However, she worries that her new classmates and teacher in Georgia won’t know about this Muslim holiday and she misses her old friends back in Abu Dhabi. A caring librarian helps Lailah figure out how to explain why she is fasting to her new school community. Muslim children may find this book culturally affirming, but it is also a great introduction to Ramadan for children who are unfamiliar with this holiday.

While many of the situations in Lailah’s Lunchbox will be familiar to children in the United States — the school setting, fears about being different, missing old friends — there are children’s books with plots and settings that will be deeply unfamiliar. One such book is The Water Princess by Susan Verde. Set in an unspecified African locale, this book shares the struggle for clean water through the actions of Princess Gie Gie, who rules over her domain but is unable to easily secure clean drinking water. Readers will connect with the relationship between mother and child and the hope for a better future, but may need help understanding why drinking water is so scarce. Books alone can be a powerful resource in helping children cross borders; books used in powerful ways in classroom or learning environment can be even more effective.

Maya’s Blanket/La manta de Maya by Monica Brown features a Latina child in a story based on an old Yiddish folk song. In this English/Spanish bilingual book, Maya’s abuela stitches a beautiful, much-loved blanket for Maya’s bed. When it becomes worn, the blanket is turned into a dress. When the dress becomes too small, it gets turned into a skirt; as each item wears out it gets turned into a smaller item. This is a fun book with a Latina main character. It would also be interesting to compare it to other versions, such as Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback.

In addition to showing cultural differences, Maya’s Blanket/La manta de Maya includes codeswitching in the English text. Language is intricately interrelated with culture, both shaping and being shaped by the cultural patterns that contour our lives. Learning a language inevitably means learning about the culture. Crossing physical borders also often means crossing linguistic borders.

Like culture, language is a living thing, constantly changing. One recent book that deals with the invention of a new language system is Six Dots: The Story of Young Louis Braille by Jen Bryant. This biography of Louis Braille’s youth shows how he built upon a military code to create a reading and writing system for the blind. Sometimes languages die out. In The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew by Richard Michelson, Ben-Zion’s father revitalizes the language of Hebrew, which had fallen out of everyday use and was limited to prayers by the late 1800s.

Most societies across the globe value multilingualism. The United States is a notable exception; while many individuals in the United States support knowing more than one language, multilingualism is not part of the national culture. Although a bit older than the other books I’ve shared this month, I’d like to end this week’s post with Too Young for Yiddish by Richard Michelson. Aaron has a close relationship with his grandfather, or Zayde, an ardent reader with many books. However, Aaron can’t read the books with his grandfather because they’re all in Yiddish, and Zayde doesn’t think that Jewish kids in America need to learn Yiddish. However, as Zayde gets older he realizes that losing Yiddish means losing memories and culture and at last he begins to teach Aaron.

Language matters. Culture matters. A diverse and global society will depend upon people who know how to cross cultural and linguistic borders.

There are many, many other books that could be added to this blog post! Use the comments box to suggest other children’s books that can help us cross cultural and linguistic borders.

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