I considered enrolling my kindergartner in a dual-language Chicago public school so she could take all of her classes in Spanish. We decided not to for a host of, including logistical, reasons. But as one colleague advised me, taking a foreign language in a traditional school program only yields students who know how to use swear words with aplomb. Of course, this friend was half-joking but her point was well taken about the priority of a second language in our current public education system.
Growing up, my father begged me to be fluent in Spanish. I attended sleepaway Spanish camp one summer or a couple of weeks with friends at Lake Forest College. All I remember is half of the words to the song “La Bamba.” I kept telling him that high school was too late to master a foreign language. He was right; I wish I spoke Spanish with fluency beyond conjugating verbs in the present tense. Four years of high school Spanish and some in college did not elevate me to the bilingualism. An earlier start would’ve helped.
The flip side to being monolingual is you can travel and navigate much of the world because English is spoken as a second, third or fourth language — often regardless of socioeconomic status. It’s a potent reminder of colonialism and our own small borders in the U.S. Being the American who only speaks English makes me feel small and fatuous. Watching children speak other languages fluently while traveling abroad embarrasses me about my own shortcomings.
Meanwhile, I’m a die-hard South Side Chicagoan who aspires to be a global citizen by paying attention to international issues and finding ways to connect them to my own life. I want to help my five-year-old evolve into a better global citizen, which is more than passport stamps from sunning at resorts. She should be able to think critically past our own borders, identify with the human race while understanding global issues such as human rights, antiracism, gender equality, climate change and the uneven distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine across the planet. The vastness of the U.S. presents challenges. In the time it takes to travel one state over, in some parts of the world that same distance lands you in another country. But that’s no excuse.
Another friend — also with a five-year-old — and I text about these issues. There’s a contradiction in global citizen rhetoric that concentrates too much on the marketplace and global capitalism. Or it is perilous like the reality show “The Activist” coming to CBS. The description: “From the Global Citizen movement comes an awe-inspiring look at what can come of it. The Activist pairs advocates from the worlds of health, education and the environment with famous figures in a series of competitions that’ll take the winners — and their ideas for seismic world change — to the G20 Summit in Italy.” In other words — a social media popularity contest drenched in capitalism, not based on quality of ideas or true social justice. Recent reports say the show is being retooled after a Twitter lashing.
According to the National Education Association, there are myriad ways to make young people global citizens such as through literature, virtual field trips, music and culture. Chicago, too, is a global city and there are ways to incorporate a global perspective — from riding the “L” to trying new cuisines to experiencing cultural events out of your comfort zone to calling out the racism and marginalization some residents face here. Being a global citizen isn’t a put down to our city, much less the South Side. After all, a global citizen should be able to order a four-piece mild from Harold’s Fried Chicken with aplomb.
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