As a mom of two, I go into every new school year with good intentions. I tell myself that I’ll be at every PTA meeting and get an early jump on those awful class projects. And I’m going to drill my kids with math facts and spelling words on weekends. But then life gets in the way, and I forget that I have a job, mounds of laundry and kids’ activities that eat up most of our time. And we fall back into our old habits by Thanksgiving.
My daughter’s French class is one of those things I say we’ll work on. But asking her to study verb conjugations and vocabulary words is the worst punishment I could impose on either of us. But according to Dr. Kami Anderson, her disdain for French has more to do with the way she is learning than the language itself. She has developed a curriculum to help Black parents raise bilingual children, even if they don’t have much experience with a second language themselves. I spoke with her about her program and how throwing a little Black history into the mix can help make learning French less of a chore for my sixth-grader.
Dr. Kami Anderson is an interculturalist, scholar and language advocate. For over twenty years, she’s used her education (BA, Spanish - Spelman College, MA, International Affairs/Interdisciplinary Studies in International Communication and Anthropology - American University and Ph.D., Communication and Culture - Howard University) and experience to focus on family empowerment through language. As the founder and CEO of Bilingual Brown Babies, Dr. Anderson’s homeschool curriculum helps Black families on their way to bilingualism. And she does it all while raising four bilingual children of her own.
Anderson says working overseas in relief and development after college opened her eyes to the atrocities many people of color experience around the world. “Racism happens outside of this country too, and I thought, Black children need to know about this,” she says. Anderson decided that language was the best way to tell the story. But she knew she would need to teach differently from the model used in most American classrooms. Dr. Anderson argues that erasing what it means to be a person of color in foreign language learning is what often causes Black and Brown students to be less engaged.
“You’ve got at least a dozen countries on the continent of Africa that speak French. How often does your daughter see images from those countries?” she says. “If I taught French, I would show pictures of me in Senegal so kids can see that there are people who look like me who speak this language. I’ll give you the Black history of countries like Mexico because you need to know that there are Black folks there.”
Anderson believes spending time in a French or Spanish-speaking country is a great way to immerse your children in their new language. And while she thinks Black children should be able to collect as many stamps on their passports as possible, she knows international travel may not be feasible for some families. But that shouldn’t discourage them from language learning. She says describing basic household tasks is one of the best ways parents can help kids use what they’ve learned outside the classroom. “Right now, once your kid is out of that language class, they don’t have to worry about it anymore. But if parents use it at home, kids start to appreciate the value,” she says. ”If I know this language, I can talk to more people in the world.”
Anderson says most of the work she does helps parents develop the confidence they need to use the language with their children. “You’re always telling your child to clean their room. Let me teach you how to tell them in a different language,” she says. “The conversations help with retention, so let’s learn how to have conversations at home.”
Although learning a new language takes time and practice, Anderson says every little bit helps. “Set a timer for five minutes and use as much of your language as possible. And when that timer goes off, you’re done for the day,” she says. “It’s like exercise. You might not be able to do 150 crunches, but 20 does something. It might take a little bit longer to get those abs you want, but your work does help.”
With her new edition of Bilingual Brown Babies, Anderson shows parents how to teach their children different words and phrases used by people of color in French and Spanish. “Most kids learn French from France or Spanish from Spain in their classes. But you go to the Dominican Republic, and that ain’t what they’re speaking,” she says. “In English, I can say ‘I’m finna go over here,’ and people know what I’m talking about,” she says. “That’s how we get that language swag, and we start to appreciate our new language more. Give me something that makes me feel like it’s me speaking and not using someone else’s voice to talk.”
Going forward, Anderson wants to help teachers with techniques they can use to reach Black students in their language classes. “You need to make sure your Black students are engaged in your class and not writing it off,” she says. “There’s been this assumed ineptness when really it’s just how you shape the pedagogy. Why aren’t you talking about the fact that Bolivia has an African monarchy? Your kids need to see it. So when they hear we come from royalty in their African American history classes, they have a Spanish equivalent. Knowing this language puts you in a grander scheme of Blackness around the globe.”