Twelve Ways the Gift of Bilingualism is Given

It’s a gift that can’t go under the tree, it can’t even be seen, but it’s one of the best gifts in life. It is, of course, the gift of bilingualism. We’ve reported on this gift many times in our first 19 episodes of this premier season of the America the Bilingual podcast. Our gift to you this Christmas season is a collection of 12 ways to experience this gift. We’re featuring excerpts from some of our favorite podcast moments of the year. Join us as we unwrap the 12 Gifts of Bilingualism. Perhaps it will inspire you to give, or receive, The Gift yourself.

Gift No. 1: The Gift to the Very Young

From birth to age 6 or so, children’s brains are wired to learn languages. They can learn two or three languages simultaneously and make it seem like no big deal. If children are lucky, they will have parents and others speaking different languages to them, and thus will receive The Gift without even knowing they are inheritors of great wealth.

· Episode 8: American Outliers

· Episode 3: Just Call Me Anna

Gift No. 2: The Gift of Age

Age is usually seen as a negative, but older adults can enter a golden time for language learning. Hear the stories of Robin Loving, Jennifer Lawson and Warren Hardy, who are leading inspiring bilingual lives in Mexico and the United States.

· Episode 16: Bless the Late Blooming Bilinguals

Gift No. 3: The Gift of Time

In our rush to get things done and check off boxes, it’s easy to forget the subtler benefits of slowing down. Less can be more when we give our children and ourselves more time to absorb, more time to live and more time to just be. Yet the trends in study-abroad programs are for shorter periods and classes taught in English, even in countries like Italy and France. We may be checking off study-abroad boxes, but we are missing out on the true life-changing opportunities that were more common decades ago. Some things—like the Dorothy Moment, when suddenly everything makes sense (“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”)— take time.

· Episode 14: The Vanishing High School Year Abroad

· Episode 8: American Outliers

Gift No. 4: The Gift of a Believing Parent

In the wake of terrorist attacks in Europe, study-abroad organizations saw a drop in applications. Since I’m a parent myself, I can understand. It’s natural to feel our children will be safer closer to home. They may also feel more comfortable, and we parents selfishly enjoy their presence. Yet in our reporting on bilingualism in America, we have heard scores of life-changing experiences made possible because parents believed the most important people in their lives would flourish by living far away for months at a time.

· Episode 9: Ed de La Torre Doesn’t Speak Spanish

· Episode 14: The Vanishing High School Year Abroad

Gift No. 5: The Gift of Friendship

Can you remember a time when you reached out to a friend in need? Or when a friend reached out to you? Being immersed in another culture and learning another language can be daunting in the extreme. It’s at such a time that a good friend can make all the difference.

· Episode 2: With a Little Help from His Friends—and Good French Wine

Gift No. 6: The Gift You Give Yourself

One of my Spanish tutors once said to me, “No one can be taught a language; they must learn it.” At first I didn’t understand what she meant, but in time, I did. She was saying that successful language learners are those who have a thirst for the language and pull it into themselves—they are not passively taught; they actively learn. Sometimes this thirst comes from being denied your heritage language because your parents didn’t speak it to you. But whatever the reason, some people give The Gift of bilingualism to themselves. And when they do, they may appreciate it all the more.

· Episode 9: Ed de La Torre Doesn’t Speak Spanish

· Episode 19: When America Went to War Against the German Language

Gift No. 7: The Gift of Recognition

Sometimes frustration can be a good thing. It was frustrated California parents and educators who in 1998 got mad at the passage of a misguided proposition that virtually outlawed bilingual education. They said, “No, this isn’t right. Bilingualism is a good thing, something to strive for, to be proud of, and to be recognized.” It wasn’t easy, but they created the first State Seal of Biliteracy. The idea has spread like gossip to other states, now totaling 30, and hundreds of

thousands of students across America are earning the seal on their high school diplomas. In the process, they are changing the narrative of bilingualism in America.

· Episode 15: Sealed with un Beso

Gift No. 8: The Gift of Wisdom

Even if we ourselves do not speak a particular language, we can be wise enough to know that it’s important to have someone on our team who does. Rather than expecting the other side to speak English, and making them do so, having someone who can speak their language shows all-important respect. It can help make agreements happen faster, and with better results for both sides. To paraphrase former German Chancellor Willy Brandt, “If you want to buy something, you can do it in your language; if you want to sell something, you better do it in theirs.”

· Episode 5: The CEO and the Polyglot

Gift No. 9: The Gift of a Gap

While the trends in high school and college study abroad are favoring shorter programs with courses taught in English, a counter-trend is fostering serious language learning. It is the growing popularity of a gap, or bridge, year between high school and college. Are you in a position to encourage or support a student taking advantage of this golden opportunity?

· Episode 17: When a Gap Year Becomes a Bridge Year

Gift No. 10: The Gift of a Teacher

Some of us have painful memories of language classes, but others have fond memories of teachers who lit the lamp of language learning for them. For these fortunate people, a single teacher made all the difference.

· Episode 1: The Lamp of Empathy

· Episode 8: American Outliers

· Episode 19: When America Went to War Against the German Language

Gift No. 11: The Gift of Technology

Will technology blast away the need for language learning? Will we all have Google Babel Fish in our ears that can instantly translate any language? Or will technology make language learning more fun and successful? Or both? We’ll track down answers to these questions from some of the nation’s experts in machine translation and language training in the second season of the America the Bilingual podcasts next year. In the meantime, here are three apps I’ve been enjoying in my ongoing efforts to learn Spanish:

· News in Slow Spanish (also available in German, Italian, French and English)

· Duolingo’s New Podcast (an easy-to-follow story in English and Spanish)

· Theater Ears, which allows you to listen to the Spanish soundtrack while watching a movie filmed in English

Gift No. 12: The Gift of Living

At a certain point, one must stop studying a language and begin living a language. (Language teachers, by the way, will be among the first to tell you this.) Hear David Wolf, whom we featured in Episode 2. He didn’t study French, he studied business in French. It was daunting, but he succeeded in getting his MBA, and became fluent in the process. In our next season, we’ll release an episode on how people have learned languages while doing something else. In 2018, look for an episode titled “Learning a Language by Not Studying It.”

Hear the 12 Gifts of Bilingualism:

Hear Episode 20 of America the Bilingual: The 12 Gifts of Bilingualism. Listen on iTunes by clicking here: America the Bilingual by Steve Leveen on iTunes; on SoundCloud here; or wherever you listen to podcasts. Please subscribe and give us a review. It will help other people find the podcast. I’ll let you know about future episodes on Twitter as well. We invite you to sign up at America the Bilingual for more reporting on the bilingual movement in America.


America the Bilingual is a storytelling podcast reporting on the bilingual movement in America. We are part of the Lead with Languages campaign of ACTFL — The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

This episode was written by me, Steve Leveen, and our producer, Fernando Hernández (who also does our sound design and mixing). Our associate producer is Beckie Rankin. Mim Harrison is the America the Bilingual editorial and brand director; Carlos Plaza is our design director; and Chetley von Mutt is our bark-lingual mascot. Our editorial consultant is Maja Thomas.

Special thanks to all our guests who have appeared on America the Bilingual podcasts this year—we are toasting you this holiday season.

And our heartfelt thanks to you, our listeners, for your kind words and encouragement during our first year of America the Bilingual.

Music in this episode with a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike License by (in order of appearance):

Kevin Macleod, Jorge Mario Zuleta, Rafael Archangel, Francisco Penilla and Lee Rosevere.

See you all next year! ¡Nos vemos en año nuevo!