I believe that everyone should have the chance to see another part of the world, to live abroad, to learn another language. I have had opportunities to travel and study that would be impossible luxuries for many.
I really only know those “easy” Western European languages, German, French, and a little Italian, but I’ve also made attempts at learning Navajo and Hungarian, and have an envious admiration of those who have mastered languages that use a completely different alphabet, like Thai or Serbo-Croatian.
Learning another language is hard. It takes time, dedication, a willingness to be open-minded, to see in a different way. It is a humbling experience that demands courtesy and respect. For when you learn another language, you learn about another people, another history. You learn how and when to say “please” and “thank you.” You learn words for beauty and war, that a firm handshake can be considered unpleasantly aggressive, or that it is offensive to ask, “How are you?” when wellness is the natural state of being.
Five years ago, while taking a Hungarian language class in Budapest, I met a young woman from Baghdad, who, like me, was far from home and trying to learn the language of her new residence. Technically we were at war, she and I. Over coffee during breaks between grammar lessons she told me about how she had lived in Basra through the first Gulf War, about how her little brother was still weak from having drunk contaminated water as a baby, and how she even still, far away from Iraq, could not stand the sound of sirens. Yet, she was terribly homesick. It was then that the story of Abu Ghraib broke, with photos of tortured Iraqi prisoners. I felt ashamed, and responsible too.
I learned many things during those few months living in Central Europe, about the efficiency of public transportation, about the subtle varieties of paprika and mineral water, but also about how to be a better citizen, about how to participate in and take responsibility for my own government.
If Americans who speak Arabic, Farsi, Korean, or Sudanese, to say nothing of the many thousands of languages and dialects that are now or once were spoken or written around the world, were better represented in our government, would be better equipped to carry out a progressive and diplomatic foreign policy? When you empathize with your neighbors, even when they live on the other side of the globe, it is more difficult to torture or bomb them.
You might not need to travel far to learn another language. I hope one day to learn Spanish, Polish, and Czech, so that as I lean over my fence I can have a real conversation with my neighbors, but I suspect that my boys, motivated by backyard soccer games and skateboard riding in the alley, will learn them first.