Friendships hold the world together
Brigita Orel, linguist and author of The Pirate Tree, on how learning other languages promote empathy and friendship. Plus, a booklist about multicultural friendships!
I started learning English at the age of ten, and with it, a whole new world opened up for me. It was my first English teacher’s enthusiasm and kindness that encouraged me to learn and appreciate foreign languages. I discovered new cultures, new places and met new people and even became good friends with some of them. I never lost my love for languages and I have learned (or tried to learn) other languages since, but English has remained my first love.
When I started writing, it felt natural to write in English. When I look back now, I think it was a combination of my love for the language, me being too shy to express myself in my mother tongue, and the excitement and novelty a less familiar language offered. English was a place where I could explore, invent and play with words. But it was also more than that. It was a window into the world beyond my country’s borders, a glimpse into beautiful new cultures, an initiation into foreign concepts and attitudes, and also a mirror to my own Slovenianness.
Learning about different cultures is a bit like a treasure hunt, with the journey itself being the treasure.
For me, it was immensely enriching, it helped my creativity as I learned that there were countless ways of looking at life, and I became more critical of my own position in this world. I learned to be more tolerant because despite different habits, traditions and beliefs we are all essentially the same at our core – we feel pain, love, joy, grief, we just perhaps express it differently.
The more I reflected on what my second language offered me, the more I realised how much distance there was between different cultures and nations and how important it was to bridge this void. I believe that the most promising way to do this is to start educating children as young as possible.
Children are not born with preconceptions and prejudices; they acquire them through what they observe in their environment, particularly in adult behaviour. Instead of fear of the unknown, they possess a voracious appetite for knowledge and discovery. So rather than act as examples of intolerance and narrow-mindedness we should show them how to be inclusive and unbiased.
Most acts of hate, rejection and contempt are fuelled by fear of the unknown. The fear can be eradicated, but it is far easier and less painful to prevent the fear from rooting itself in us at all by familiarising ourselves with the unknown early on. If we introduce very young children to the richness and diversity our world offers, ‘otherness’ will become a word the meaning of which is obsolete because we will all become ‘us’.
Picture books are a friendly and fun way to introduce these concepts to children. Colourful illustrations and an engaging story attract a child’s attention and they help associate ‘otherness’ with positive emotions. I remember reading and re-reading my favourite picture books as a child. I’ve read countless novels since but few of those are as vivid in my mind as the illustrations and stories of those first literary adventures. Because of children’s impressionable minds the stories from their early childhood leave a permanent mark and stay with them for the rest of their lives – together with the messages they convey.
To a child, a friendship between children of different cultures who perhaps speak different languages is just friendship – pure and simple and fun. Friendships are vital for their growth and the development of social skills because they are a microcosm of the world and this is where children learn about relationships and how to treat others.
Children don’t judge based on the colour of our skin or how our name sounds; children are inclusive. It’s on us to help them stay that way.
My favourite books on multicultural friendships
Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll – During the Blitz, Olive is evacuated from London. On the Devon coast, she meets a fierce girl who’s come from even further away. Amidst the horrors of war, the two girls discover what truly matters in life.
The Other Side of Summer by Emily Gale – A subtle tale of grief and displacement and of settling down in a new culture. Summer makes a new friend in the most unlikely of ways.
Booked by Kwame Alexander – A heartfelt novel-in-verse about friendship, family and first love.
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell – Being sixteen is hard enough, but when you don’t feel like you fit in, finding someone who gets you might be the beginning of something great.
The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon – Natasha is about to be deported to Jamaica, so falling in love with Daniel is the stupidest thing to do.
The Pirate Tree by Brigita Orel and Jennie Poh – Please do check out my first picture book!
The gnarled tree on the hill sometimes turns into a pirate ship. A rope serves as an anchor, a sheet as a sail, and Sam is its fearless captain. But one day, another sailor approaches, and he's not from Sam's street. Can they find something more precious than diamonds and gold? Can they find...friendship?
Click HERE to look inside the book.
Brigita Orel is a Slovenian author and translator. She has published numerous short stories and poems in online and print journals. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. You can find more of Brigita's work at her website brigitaorel.com