Children Speak

Through art, music and literature, multi-cultural children found answers to the all-important question, “Who am I?”

On The Town | Gretchen Gatzke, Justin McCauley | March 2010

"Why are people racist?" Chadwick Williams, the founder of the Project for Mother Tongue and Cultural Identity recalls the question that started it all. He had been talking with a colleague, an ESL teacher at the Vienna International School where he teaches.

"Let’s finish what we’re working on first," the teacher responded, a bit thrown off by such a blunt question from the sixth grader. "We can discuss that afterwards."

Williams spoke on Feb. 25 in the rotunda of the United Nations, a giant room filled with teachers, parents and students brought together by the question, "Who am I?" All in attendance emitted a sense of pride; teachers and parents, pleased with the sense of identity their children had expressed, while the children loitered, anxious and eager to show off and explain what their culture means to them.

That simple question from a sixth grade boy had sparked something, Williams explained, leading to a new class unit, which turned into a class project, which eventually evolved in a venture that extended its reach throughout schools in Vienna.

An open exhibition of the children’s art allowed visitors to step into the mind of a 15-year-old from Turkey or a 10-year-old from China. Painting, film and poetry were just a few of the many mediums of art that had allowed these young individuals to explore each language and culture. Their newly discovered sense of cultural individuality was overwhelming; students were laughing and dancing around, dressed in Philippine tagalogs and traditional Namibian robes, the grins on their faces from ear to ear.

"Children make us think," Williams said. "We have to listen to their questions in order to challenge and broaden our perspective." He went on to explain his dedication to making children "global citizens."

The growing role of English as a Lingua Franca was a running theme of the event. Still, it is important to keep unique languages alive, emphasized Maher Nasser, the director of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), one of the key sponsoring organizations. "English is spoken more and more commonly. And one language disappears every fortnight. If it continues this way, half of the world’s languages will be extinct by the end of the century."

Nasser compared these languages to endangered species, and our cultural diversity to the biological diversity of the earth. In a very real sense, language is life, the connecting tissue of culture without which societies die.

All in all, it was an evening of stories – like Layla Abdul-Hadi’s tale of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II. Languages were a constant issue across the Empire and Frederick wondered what language children would speak if they were cut off from the outside world. Would they speak Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Sicilian or Arabic? After isolating several infants, the Emperor discovered that, with no verbal contact they learned no language whatsoever, neither Latin nor Hebrew, neither Greek nor Arabic. They never learned to speak at all, and died unable to express their needs.

"Communication is not a product of life. It is a prerequisite of life," said Abdul-Hadi who was speaking on behalf of Secretary General Abdalla S El-Badri of OPEC. This could reveal itself in a number of ways.

"The two most important things to learn how to say in any language are how to ask for food, and how to tell a woman you love her – and of these, the second is by far the most important," she paused, for effect. "For if you tell a woman you love her, she will probably feed you!"

The talks were followed by a whimsical Austrian fairytale performed by the musical ensemble Talespin. A talented company of musicians and actors, headed by Chandra VanderHart and Anna Lea Stefánsdóttir on piano and violin, with Ivar Helgason as narrator. A talented and multicultural group, Talespin was a perfect match for an event celebrating language and identity through art.

After a short awards ceremony thanking students, teachers, and organizers, four projects previously chosen by a panel of judges were presented to the audience by the artists themselves. And suddenly, the room seemed lighter, as an energy flowed from the stage, as young people – on the threshold of becoming adults – described their lives in art, sharing their insights on the complicated question, "Who am I?"

These young artists form a kind of vanguard of what is to come, of generations who define themselves as a collective. Through their daring and imagination, these young people, confident in their voices, may be able to bring a sense of identity that will guide other third-culture kids. And on Feb. 25, parents and teachers, UN employees, diplomats, embassy staffers and guests stood witness to the ever-astonishing power of a child’s mind.

"Children cause us to seek answers," Williams concluded, "answers to questions we have long grown out of asking." But it is through these questions, he suggested, that we as adults end up addressing the most fundamental problems of our existence, and seek solutions that we might have otherwise failed to ask.

"Love knows no boundaries." 

"My memories pile  up inside to form what I do and who I am, 

giving me a set of possibilities." 

"People don’t like great change in old traditions." 

"One’s identity is in fact a mystery, an unsolved puzzle. Different life events assemble to mold you." 

Other articles from this issue