Monday, October 5, 2015         


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Multilingualism promotes cultural understanding

By Margo Sorenson


Protesters abroad fill the streets, cars are set on fire, militiamen hunt down dissenters -- and we watch correspondents report these events in our own English language.

"Our world is shrinking," we hear people say.

The Internet has accelerated this phenomenon of globalism, and these global connections are made possible by the fact that today many people across the world speak and understand English.

In most foreign countries, chances are that we Americans will find English speakers to understand us. English has become the language of business and diplomacy. Why bother to learn a foreign language, many of us ask, when everywhere we go, someone speaks English?

The sad, and unintended, consequences of our reluctance to learn foreign languages will become clearer in the coming decades. There is much more involved in speaking another language than appears on the surface, and it's critically important that we Americans realize this, especially if we are to compete on an international basis.

Research shows that speaking a foreign language isn't only a way to communicate what we want, or to increase enjoyment of a travel experience. Speaking a foreign language allows us to understand people on a deeper level than the mere words can denote. The thought processes hard-wired into our brains by the way our languages are constructed are subtle and far-reaching.

Consider, for example, the dramatic contrast between saying in English, "I like it," with the Italian, French or Spanish literal translation of that sentence: "It pleases me." In English, the speaker is the focus of attention, but in the other languages, the focus is the object itself. Americans who don't speak another language may have no idea that another culture uses a different way to express this very basic human statement, and they could be missing out on being able to truly understand people from other cultures.

Another example: The literal English translation of the Korean "Good morning," our typical cheerful greeting, is, "Did you have peace last night?" -- a tacit reminder of the thousand years of invasion that country has endured.

What are the chances for us to become better speakers of foreign languages and be able to better understand other cultures and peoples?

The Center for Applied Linguistics' most recent study, in 2009, found that 90 percent of Europeans take English in elementary school and take two languages in high school.

In the U.S., less than half of school children are enrolled in even one language in middle and high school.

The CAL reports: "The findings indicate a serious disconnect between the national call to educate world citizens with high-level language skills and the current state of foreign language instruction in schools across the country."

Perhaps when we realize that understanding how a language works is key to understanding how a person thinks, we might become more motivated to break down our self-imposed walls of cultural isolation and broaden our horizons. Our economic competitiveness and national security could depend on encouraging the study of foreign languages. Political leaders could enact legislation to promote foreign language study. Nonprofits and charitable organizations could create programs that would reward foreign language students.

We Americans would do well to enlarge our universe and to realize that just because many of our global friends already speak English doesn't mean we can truly understand them. Our world is shrinking, but, sadly, it's not shrinking in the way we Americans often think it is; our ability to understand others on a deeper level could be what is really shrinking. There is hope, however, if only we will speak up -- in another language.


'Under the sun' off

Cynthia Oi's "Under the Sun" column, which runs Thursdays, will return next week.

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