While being back in the United States does make me reflect on the aspects of my country that I’m grateful for – like the ubiquity of spicy foods, iced coffee, and grocery stores open on Sundays – it also has reminded me of some of the most glaring problems in our society, one of which is the collective disregard of second language acquisition, or what I like to call the “we speak ‘American’ here” mentality.
For a country composed of citizens of countless different backgrounds (see map below), it’s pretty embarrassing how little value we place on language learning, and how quick we are to cut funding for foreign language education. However, the general consensus in this country is that if you’re a native, monolingual English speaker, you’ve got it made.
Not so fast, I say.
Those of us who are native English speakers need to remind ourselves how lucky we are and that just because it’s the lingua franca doesn’t mean the rest of the world should adapt to us. It’s a two-way street; besides, the last thing this country needs is more viral videos of disgruntled, racist lawyers and Wal-Mart shoppers reprimanding fellow citizens for conducting private conversations in their native language.
Maybe I’m biased, having majored in Spanish and just spent a year living in said country, but I’m not the only one who sees this English-centric attitude as problematic – the former U.S. secretary of defense thinks so too. If you’re not convinced by me simply stating that the former director of the CIA thinks we need to step up our language learning game, read his opinion piece here , and see for yourself.
Here’s the TL;DR version of his article: we are going to compromise not only national security but also global competitiveness as well if we do not start emphasizing second language acquisition. Nearly every other country us ahead of us in this respect, and if we don’t start soon we are going to lose out big time.
However, for our country to truly be successful in this endeavor, we need to forget about a foreign language being “useful” in the terms of a job description. Maybe the only languages a computer programmer really needs on his or her resume are those of the JAVA, Python, and CSS variety, but the skills gained from foreign language study can translate well to the workplace. Anyone who spends time studying a foreign language, and I mean meaningful study, not just tediously conjugating verbs, can become more adaptable, a better communicator, and a problem solver. The employer might not see these skills listed on a candidate’s resume, but they are the ones that will help employees not only hold down their jobs but thrive.
Aside from aiding in the public policy and professional arenas, bolstering language learning for future generations could help us create more meaningful interactions with one another. In a society that might be at its most polarized point in years, we need empathy, patience, and perspective now more than ever, and that’s why we need language education.
So, what does picking up a second language have to do with this? Just about everything.
First off, the task itself requires that us be patient with ourselves, and this, in turn, makes us more tolerant of others, especially those trying their best to grasp English. Us native English speakers will then better understand the vulnerability and stress one experiences when communicating in a language that is strange and new to them.
It sets us back to square one, and when we’re armed with the vocabulary of an average at best average preschooler we feel uncomfortable, socially awkward, and childish when trying to express even the simplest of thoughts. Rather than effortlessly flowing, we churn our words out in choppy, stiff, and unnatural phrases. This will teach us never to judge another person’s intelligence based on the way that they speak English.
Even more importantly, learning a second language allows us to access another world, to consider new perspectives, and to realize that the world does not exist in black and white. It challenges us to be slower to judge, and to recognize the value of making mistakes and learning from them too – something we could all stand to be reminded of once in a while.
As the ancient proverb tells us, “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins” and I think I can speak for many people when I say that studying another language is one way to figuratively walk in another’s shoes. I know it has been for me. We may not all be destined to become interpreters or polyglots, but that’s not the point. If we’re all out here hoping for a better country and a better world, investing more in language learning for future generations is the first step we can make in the right direction towards a more united society.
Cover photo: America, by RETNA
Language map infographic: Slate