Keeping Pace in a Multilingual World
“The world is becoming smaller and smaller and the benefits of knowing a second language is becoming ever more beneficial culturally, socially and commercially.”
Americans are impressed by the ability of most Europeans to speak on or two foreign languages. “How do they do it?” we ask. “I studied Spanish in high school, but I can’t say a word when I want to speak.”
It is a common experience in this country to study a foreign language for year sin high school or college and still be unable to hold a simple conversation with a native speaker. Several factors account for the advantage Europeans have over Americans when it comes to acquiring fluency in a foreign language.
One factor is the history that has shaped current attitudes. Because North America has been a top industrial and political power for generations, it hasn’t seemed necessary for us to bother learning someone else’s language.
In the past, world powers like the Roman Empires, England and Spain dominated their colonies and imposed their own language. Geography is also a factor. The countries of Europe are so small that people often spend the weekend in a country with a different language – almost impossible in the United States.
When my family and I were in Europe, we visited places where my wife, who teaches English as a second language (ESL), could teach English. We were amazed at the number of small language institutes where working people, students, retirees and housewives went to school at all hours of the day and evening to learn a foreign language. English (the highest number of institutes), French, Swahili, Mandarin, Japanese!
In these institutes they could take classes in small groups of three to five people. The classes we observed were lively groups of people trying to talk in the language they were learning. We also found that many people in the classes had been taking English, French or German since kindergarten.
Small-group institutes like these have been virtually non-existent in the United States until recently. Now, a few of the larger cities have schools of this type such as the one we have in Santa Barbara for learning Spanish.
While working at the University of Cordoba, Spain, I found that Spanish immersion programs were offered by the university to European students during the summer. The students lived with Spanish families and studied the language for two or three entire months before returning to their regular studies. This type of program has been costly and impractical in the United States.
Most Americans encounter great obstacles in their efforts to learn a foreign language. School systems don’t offer foreign language classes until middle school or later. And in a university or college, classes usually have 20 to 30 students – far too many to provide sufficient opportunities to speak.
In addition, the teaching approach is often academic, emphasizing confusing grammatical pints that aren’t too important. This isn’t at all the way we learn how to talk.
Grammar helps show the logic of how a language works, but it is faster and easier to develop fluency by learning language patterns or phrases. Through repetition and conversation, we can then expand these phrases almost automatically, as we learn new works. This is the way a child learns.
A friendly atmosphere is essential when we learn languages, so being in a small group is important. Also, conversational skill comes only with the sufficient repetition of the basic patterns of communication. That means you have to talk. You have to practice speaking and adequate opportunities for speaking can only be provided when classes are limited in size.
In the past, many Americans didn’t have much contact with foreigners. And foreign language classes have traditionally been difficult and unrewarding. Therefore, different customs and languages seemed strange to many of us. But the world is becoming smaller and smaller and the advantages of knowing a second language are becoming ever more beneficial culturally, socially and commercially.
Today, each of us faces stiff challenges in this multicultural and multilingual world.
We’re going to pay a tremendous price if we continue to rely on one language – even if it is still the predominant one. Ultimately, the trading partner with the most languages at its command will have the greatest advantage.
Two centuries ago, England and America successfully penetrated foreign markets with little competition from small or large countries. For that reason, English was taught in schools and colleges all over the world. At the present time, English continues to be taught in most schools, but that doesn’t mean everything is translated into English. And it doesn’t mean all our customers are learning English.
While Everyone is still learning English, we could remain relaxed and un-aggressive. We could rest on the accomplishments of past generations. Or we could strive to gain insight into how world attitudes are changing. To learn another language is to help us understand what others believe, how they think. It puts us in touch with the 21st century.
New foreign markets are opening at a rapid pace in Mexico and Latin America, and business is being conducted in several languages right here in the United States. To become bilingual will have tremendous business, cultural and political implications for everyone.
If you have studied a foreign language in the United States, but can’t carry on a conversation, don’t be discouraged. Words may be faint in your memory but every word you learn is a step forward and will help you.
Language is a skill like skating or playing the guitar; it requires consistent effor and practice. Start with basic patterns. Practice these patterns and they’ll accumulate in your memory. Childlike persistence will give you linguistic wings.
Once you’re fluent, you can embark on a lifetime pursuit of excellence if you want to. Higher levels of competency can create rich experiences in communication.
Almost every culture has a wealth of literature, poetry, music and theater. Learning languages is learning to appreciate a common heart through a different perspective.
Sharing a language and communicating in it is exciting. You can discover new worlds at every stage of the learning process. But you have to start by learning to say, “ Yo soy, tu eres, ellos son.”
It helps to be in an atmosphere conducive to learning to speak a new language, and it’s easier if you start in kindergarten or even earlier. I hope this opportunity will be available to children in the future. But it’s never too late to learn.