I know people say that it’s a small world, but in fact it’s important to remember that it’s a big world, too, much bigger than our own little corner and our own local concerns. One of the things I’ve appreciated most about living in Spain is the opportunity to gaze beyond my accustomed horizon.
While there may be a tendency in most parts of the world to be a little self-centered, I come from a country that has raised that tendency to a fine art. Within the US I come from a state whose capital proudly sports the nickname “hub of the universe.” Yes, there are lots of important things going on in Boston, and yes, the USA is an important player on many stages. But it seems to me that we lose out, in tangible and intangible ways, when we ignore the fact that we have many neighbors, and they’re real people, not just occasional news stories or statistics or potential customers or sports opponents or actual enemies.
I was reminded of one example of our sometimes limited view several weeks ago. A gentleman in Germany told me a joke about people and the number of languages they speak, which asks what you call a person who speaks three languages (trilingual), two languages (bilingual) and one language–American.
Americans aren’t the only people in the world for whom speaking a second language is unusual, but our comparative stats don’t look particularly good.
A 2012 Forbes article quotes the US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan lamenting that only 18% of Americans go on record as speaking a language other than English, while 53% of Europeans can speak a second language.
The Center for Applied Linguistics maintains that there are many more bilingual or multilingual individuals in the world than there are monolingual.
This New York Times article pushes back a little, saying that maybe the survey questions asked of US citizens leads to under-reporting, and that we might look a little better if we asked the same question put to folks in the EU, namely, “can you hold a conversation in a language other than your native tongue?” It’s possible. But how the US is doing as a country isn’t really the question I’m interested in. I’d rather consider how we, the people currently a few paragraphs into this blog post, are doing as individuals.
My Spanish (or rather, my Castellano) was rusty when I arrived in Spain, and is getting better, but there’s plenty of room for improvement. How about you? If you have studied a language other than the one you learned as a child, what kind of shape is it in these days? If you’ve never studied another language, have you ever thought about it? I know that there’s a critical time during childhood when acquiring a new language is comparatively easy, but if you happen to be older than that, it’s not too late. There are more interesting options for learning languages available now than at any time in the past.*
Learning to speak another language isn’t the only way to be reminded that the world is big. There are lots of very simple things we can do. My “porridge oats” come in a package with instructions in English, Spanish and Greek. I don’t actually need instruction about what the oats need in order to become breakfast, so I don’t read the instructions, but I do entertain myself wondering why these three languages, of all the languages in the EU. Spending a few minutes to appreciate examples of text in other languages can remind you of the people who speak them.
I’d recommend taking a look at the hilarious instances of consumer product instructions written in English by non-English speakers, but I hold back, because the result, in addition to tears of laughter, can be an unfortunate and false impression that the writers were generally incompetent and worthy of ridicule. I don’t know that we’d all look really good if asked to produce text in a language other than our first.
This I can recommend–watch a movie or TV show in another language, and read the subtitles. It’s fun to have another set of sounds in your ear. It’s also fun to have the generally erroneous impression that you speak that language pretty well, an impression that disappears the moment you turn off the subtitles. Loquita and I have been watching some Korean TV, and are having a good time collecting isolated words to add to our vocabulary. I’m great with short connecting words like “so” and “then,” and can say both “yes” and “why.” It gives me a disproportionate sense of accomplishment, as well as a yearning to get some Korean food from the H-mart that we pass on the way to visit my parents.
El Guapo is much stronger on geography than I am, and when we play the guessing game popular with our kids that he long ago called “Questions Questions Questions,” he loves to ask us about countries in different parts of the world. (Quick! what’s the capital of Mongolia? Big points if you guessed Ulaanbaatar.) It helps to remind us of all the places there are that aren’t here, wherever here currently is.
Finally, here’s a little video from They Might Be Giants. I love this song. For starters, it would be quite informative to look up where to find each of these countries. What can you recommend to the rest of us to help us be reminded of how big the world is? I’d love to hear about it!
*Here are just a few: I get an email every day with a single Spanish word, its definition, and a couple of sentences using it. Very often I know the word already, but I still take a look, because also very often I’m exposed to something new in the sample sentences–other vocabulary, or an unfamiliar construction. I also use duolingo.com to help my kids learn Spanish, and they’ve made some good progress. My public library has language learning software available for patrons. Ever wanted to learn some sign language? There are all kinds of videos on youtube. By all means, add your favorites to the comments.