Growing up in a small city in Illinois raised by my working class grandparents, my definition of culture was having an A&W Root beer and a foot-long hotdog from 7/11. This was a treat that my grandparents exposed me to on an occasional weekend. In our small town the Italian restaurant was Olive Garden and the really nice restaurant was Red Lobster. We couldn't afford these restaurants, but they were ones that I aspired to go to when I "grew up" and could afford to eat at restaurants that introduced me to food from other cultures.
I came from a loving family, but it was not one where we had dinner as a family with a properly-set table. At my first entry-level job, I went to a restaurant with my boss and other colleagues. Looking at the table setting, I realized that I didn't know which knife and fork to use. I was so afraid to eat that I waited until my food became cold before following my boss's lead. I didn't want to embarrass myself. This restaurant was a far cry from my grandparents' house where I ate watching the TV with a plate on my lap.
My story is not unique. It is played out in thousands of homes every day as working-class and low-income parents try to make ends meet. The issue is that in contrast more affluent homes throughout the country and the world, children are learning from a young age how to eat properly at a table; while they may still prefer fries and a burger, they have been exposed to cuisines of the world. They have had dinnertime conversations that have given them strong vocabularies that are more than double the size of children from poor homes. By the age of three years old, poor kids have a vocabulary of 500 words compared to a same-aged middle class child, who has a vocabulary of 1,100 words. Unfortunately, this is just the beginning of the achievement gap faced by many students across the country. While poor children are trying to catch up, by the time that more affluent students reach middle school, they have their passports and have already began to see what the world has to offer.
This is in stark contrast to children like me who come from poverty. They have no idea about the potential that exist in the world. How can you hear about or even care about a global economy when your world exists in a five-block radius?
Despite these inequalities, children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and their privileged peers will grow up to compete for entrance to the same institutions of higher learning and ultimately, the same jobs. What they don't know can hurt them.
While some lament how unfair this is, I have always been one to think of solutions. This led me to found Global Language Project, an organization that teaches inner-city kids new languages and about new cultures.
In corporate America, I quickly learned that knowledge of culture and the ability to network and converse over a lunch or dinner are not only well-respected traits, but moreover, critical to the success of any employee. The premise of Global Language Project is to give inner-city students a high proficiency in a second language, thus opening the door to a new culture. Knowing a second language is a transferable skill and highly valued in the workplace. Right now, nurses, doctors and lawyers are just some of the professions where having a working knowledge of a second language can lead to increased pay. It makes an employee marketable. By equipping disadvantaged students with this highly coveted skill, that I knew demanded premiums across many sectors, I knew immediately that these children would become more employable.
At a time when college graduates under 25 years old have a 36 percent rate of under-employment, to equip a disadvantaged child with a skill means that they can monetize as a translator or an interpreter in the travel or medical field. This is a game changer as it offers young people an opportunity to break the cycle of poverty within their own communities.
They could go from a $10-an-hour job at McDonalds to making $75 as an interpreter. While many people are facing unemployment, these students equipped with a marketable skill can literally spin the globe and decide where they want to live and work.
They go from being "counted out" to "counted on." With the global economy familiarizing foreign languages and cultures, knowing a second language will be a decisive factor in the success of all children.
Angela Jackson is the founder of the Global Language Project, a nonprofit program that teaches youth a second language while preparing them and empowering them to compete in a global workforce. Learn more at http://www.globallanguageproject.org. Follow Angela Jackson on Twitter at @angjack.