I believe in the value of learning a second language. I believe that language has power, and thus that two or three languages add immeasurably to a person’s ability to communicate. To speak only one language is to be restrained, chained to its boundaries and limits. This belief is one of the things that drove me to spend a month with a French host family.
In France, I felt a lot like a child. My meager three years learning French let much of the world as uncharted territory. I couldn’t take words for granted anymore. Each word was a gift, opening up new areas of thought, broadening my limited spheres of conversation. I was reliant on others around me, people knowledgeable enough to understand what I wanted to says. Any sense of American, native-English-speaking superiority vanishes when one is surrounded on all sides by an alien language, forced to play by someone else’s rules. Learning languages makes you humble.
At my high school, two years of a foreign language are required to graduate, and most of my friends and classmates take Spanish. Many of these students seem to feel that the Spanish language exists for the sole purpose of making their schooldays miserable. I’ve never made it through a year without overhearing at least once the question, “Why can’t everyone else just learn English?”
The trouble is, it seems like everyone else is learning English. The attitude Europeans take towards learning a second or third language is so positive; it can get in the way. During my travels, I encountered a lot of helpful, well-meaning people who would start speaking me in my native tongue. Since I left home determined to speak French 24/7, we compromised. They spoke to me in English; I replied in French.
When my mother moved to Austin, Texas from New York, she was under the impression within a year or two, my sister and I would both be speaking Spanish fluently. Eager to expand out language horizons, she inquired at our elementary school about enrolling us in a bilingual program. After some misunderstanding, she realized that in Texas, a “bilingual program” means Spanish-speaking kids learning English—not the other way around.
It requires commitment and effort for the English-speaker not to take the easy route and depend on foreigners’ language skills, but I believe that learning at least one new language is essential. One way of looking at things, one way of saying things, is not enough in our increasingly small world. Saying things in a different way can completely change your attitude towards them, in turn changing the things themselves. For example, the word “shotgun,” meaning the front passenger seat in a car. As in, “I call shotgun!” In France, I asked what that seat is called, only to be told, “la place de mort,”—“the place of death.” Yikes.
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