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Monolingualism: It Can Be Cured

Learning a Language as an Adult Is Actually Fun

The title comes from a button I’ve seen advertising a course in French, but it summarizes exactly what my own experiences have shown. Monolingualism is like a disease, a particularly regrettable and life-impoverishing disease and one that limits the quality of life in America more than in any other economically-developed country. It is passed on from parents to children, unwittingly, because only those who don’t have it truly realize how much it limits the lives of those who do. Like those who are born blind, monolinguists have no way of conceiving of what is absent from their lives. Sporadic national efforts are occasionally made to find a cure, usually in reaction to an international crisis. But most legislation seems directed at curing future generations’ monolingualism rather than our own.

In reaction to September 11, 2001, the Secretary of Education announced several new policy priorities, including increasing U.S. knowledge of other cultures and languages. "All future measures of K-12 education must include a solid grounding in other cultures, other languages and other histories," Rod Paige declared during International Education Week.

While such a grounding is not presently a part of our educational system, Paige’s "future measures" statement emphasizes our intention to force coming generations to do what the voting generation still refuses to do itself.

Rather than a horrible trial, learning another language as an adult—whether in a school close to home or in a country where the target language is spoken— is usually actually fun. It’s a move to open one’s life in dramatic ways.

Perhaps never in our history has it been such a fascinating experience to speak another language. The importance of Latin during the Middle Ages was one thing, but today’s technology has made all the world in all its multilingualism accessible in a way that is entirely new. What people are thinking in other cultures and in other languages is literally at our fingertips.

Join the World Community

Via the web, either at home or in a library or a cyber café, anyone can access the websites of the major newspapers and news channels of all the "developed" countries. Now we can participate in a chat or forum with someone in France or Japan or Argentina. Anyone with DSL or a cable connection can even watch daily newscasts from other countries. And while it may not be legal to do so, one can even access huge banks of music in languages as common as French and Spanish and as uncommon as Tahitian. The same is becoming increasingly true for films. All of which means that a language, once learned, can remain useful for a lifetime—even if it isn’t always possible to visit (or revisit) a culture where the language is spoken.

True, the computerized world still represents only a portion of the globe. A major percentage of the world’s population still doesn’t have electricity, let alone access to the Internet. But despite the fact that information technology is still exclusive, being able to read and understand one other major European or Asian language can provide a vast—and endless—range of possibilities. If you learn just one other language you can use it daily to enrich your life from your own armchair.

So no longer is it a valid excuse to say, Why put all that effort into learning a language? How often will I get to use it, really? While it might not make sense in terms of the time investment required to learn a language for a 2-week trip abroad, it clearly does make sense as a way to open up opportunities at home for the rest of your life. Of course, speaking at least some of the local language while traveling in the country enhances and enables these short-term but memory-rich experiences in an infinite variety of ways.

The Big Advantages

First of all, speaking a second language makes travel easier psychologically. How many times have I dealt with people paralyzed at the idea of traveling in a country where they don’t speak the language—and limiting themselves to Anglophone countries or sticking with tour groups or to larger cities where they can find someone who speaks English? It isn’t necessary to speak the local language to travel; you can get by without it—which is fortunate, since there are more languages in the world than anyone could learn in one lifetime. But speaking the language of the place in which you are traveling is:

• Useful. You can actually get the right ticket for the right train the first time around.

• Safer. Tricky situations can develop, no matter where you travel. Sometimes it can be helpful to know what people near you are saying or to understand a loudspeaker announcement.

• Infinitely More Interesting. I can’t even begin to list the ways in which speaking the local language adds interest to your journey. Try watching a video in a language you don’t know, without subtitles, and that will give you the tiniest inkling of an idea of how much you’re missing when you’re monolingual.

• More Fun. You can talk to people! You can make friends! Not that it’s impossible to do that without speaking the local language, but it’s amazing how most non-Anglophone people open up the moment you make the effort to reach them on their own ground.

• Enabling. Multilingualism makes it feel far more possible to explore places that felt frightening before.

All of this, I think, can be summed up in the words of Corey Flintoff, a National Public Radio journalist, who, among other interesting projects, has taught radio journalism in Mongolia and Albania and studied the Eskimo language Yup’ik in southwestern Alaska: "Language is the key to thought." If you are interested in the thoughts of others, how could you not learn a second language?

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