Student to Student
Monolingualism: It Can Be Cured
Learning a Language as an Adult Is Actually Fun
The title comes from a button Ive 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 dont 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 this past fall.
While such a grounding is not presently a part of our educational system, Paiges "future measures" statement emphasizes our intention to force coming generations to do what the voting generation still refuses to
Rather than a horrible trial, learning another language as an adultwhether in a school close to home or in a country where the target language is spoken is usually actually fun. Its a move to open ones 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 todays 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 web sites 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 lifetimeeven if it isnt 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 worlds population still doesnt 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 vastand endlessrange 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 dont speak the languageand limiting themselves
to Anglophone countries or sticking with tour groups or to larger cities where they can find someone who speaks English? It isnt necessary to speak the local language to travel; you can get by without itwhich 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 cant 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 dont know, without subtitles, and
that will give you the tiniest inkling of an idea of how much youre missing when youre monolingual.
More Fun. You can talk to people! You can make friends! Not that its impossible to do that without speaking the local language, but its 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
Yupik 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?