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The Language of Life: Raising the bar for our children

Angela Jackson • May 8, 2014 at 9:47 AM

Global Language Project


What could be a game changer in your life? Last week, I was with Alyssa Villarreal, a school administrator from Shelby County schools in Memphis, Tenn., who shared a story of an African-American student who came from one the poorest neighborhoods in her city, and attended a school with a less-than-stellar academic reputation.

Villarreal took this student and a few others to meet a Russian diplomat who was visiting the city. In the room were local politicians, business leaders and news media. After the diplomat's presentation, the moderator opened the floor for questions. In perfect Russian, this young student asked the diplomat a question. He of course was surprised by the student's fluency in his language. Following the meeting, the diplomat rushed past the line of people waiting to speak with him to find this student and inquire about how she learned Russian.

This was an incredible moment for the student and for everyone in the room. In one instant, the student was acknowledged for her hard work and mastery of a language. And for the people in the room it was a teachable moment. Villarreal shared that the attendees were shocked that this student came from one of the lowest performing schools in the region.

This is just one example of many that exist in urban areas throughout this country and the world. Our children will rise or fall to the bar that we set for them. Parents, donors and supporters ask me regularly "Isn't learning Russian, Chinese Mandarin, Arabic, (insert language) hard?" I always say "It is hard because we think it should be." Imagine if someone told you that you had a gift for languages and that if you only spent a certain amount of hours practicing, you would achieve proficiency?

Would you do it? Would you believe them? Imagine your 5-year old self when you still believed everything your parents told you. Would you believe you could speak Russian then, if your parents told you it was possible?

Across this country and the world, in poverty-stricken areas, there is so much potential that goes wasted and underdeveloped in children. Many times because no one has believed in them or because everyone around them has such low expectations for them, that these children often have no option but to meet those reduced expectations.

I give this example for language, but it applies across the board to other subjects as well. When did our young girls begin to decide that math or sciences are hard for them? Or when did students begin believing that only "smart" kids take calculus and participate in robotics and chess. We have to challenge these notions and bring to our children the realm of possibility that they can truly do anything if they set their attention and minds to it. Be it sports, playing a musical instrument or an academic subject. We need to instill in our children that mastery takes time.

As parents we should set the expectation for our children that becoming good at anything will take time. We have to help our children understand that the joy is in the journey of learning and not the destination. While this is difficult in our goal-obsessed and competitive society, it is up to us as parents to cultivate a love of learning in our children, thus making them "forever learners."


Angela Jackson is the founder of the Global Language Project, a nonprofit program that teaches youth a second language while preparing them and empowering them to compete in a global workforce. Learn more at globallanguageproject.org. Follow Angela Jackson on Twitter at @angjack.

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