I was in Washington, D.C. last week participating in a conference at the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, a section of the National Defense University that focuses on the western hemisphere. The conference was a great opportunity to meet with individuals from throughout Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Spanish was the predominant language, not just in the passageway during breaks but during most of the lectures as well. As I dusted off my high school Spanish and struggled to keep up with conversations, it got me thinking about Americans and foreign languages.
In the same vein, this week my daughter told us that there is a boy in her kindergarten class that only speaks Spanish. She wanted to find a way to befriend him, and asked me to teach her how to say, “How old are you?” in Spanish as a way to break the ice. In seeing her make the connection in her mind that learning a key phrase might unlock the door to a new friendship, I’m not sure I’ve ever been quite so proud of her.
Foreign languages have always fascinated me, yet I have never been able to progress beyond a modest proficiency in the handful of languages I have studied to varying degrees. I took five years of Spanish in high school and college, but I never made that ultimate leap to fluency and my skills have since deteriorated after a lack of use. I have dabbled with Portuguese after a vacation in Brazil and grappled with introductory Mandarin in preparation for a visit to Beijing. My lack of fluency in any single foreign language may have as much to do with my own intellectual limits as much as anything else, but I think that for most English speakers, especially Americans, there are considerable challenges to mastering a new language.
First, English speakers must decide which language to learn. For non-English speakers considering learning a second language, the logical choice is fairly obvious: English is the lingua franca throughout the world. But what do you choose when you already speak the lingua franca? Should you pick Arabic since we seem to deploy most often to the Middle East? Or Mandarin, since in the future we will either be working for or fighting with the Chinese, depending on which commentators you believe? French is always a smart choice, given that it is a typical second or third language amongst the well educated. Ultimately, it is difficult to predict which language you will have the most opportunity to practice and will be the most useful to you at some future time.
Second, because of the ubiquity of English throughout the world, practicing on a regular basis is not easy. Many foreigners I have met would rather practice their English then bother listening to me struggle in their native tongue. The immersion required for true fluency proves elusive, especially for those of us in career tracks with no requirement to master a language or spend long stretches of time living in a foreign country.
Third, due to geography and the nature of our society, the United States can be an extremely insular country when it comes to language. Throughout our history, English has been strictly enforced, both officially and unofficially, as a societal norm for true integration. Our public education system played a large role as well, ensuring that immigrant families learned English within a generation. Changes in demographics due to the influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants over the last few decades have eroded some of this insularity as many cities in this country are increasingly becoming bi-lingual, but for most regions of the country, English is not just the predominant language, it is the only one.
Despite these challenges, the rewards for learning a new language far outweigh the costs. You will open your mind and your home to a different culture, because it is impossible to study a foreign language without being exposed to new food, music, films and literature. You can make the process a fun activity for the whole family by learning a few simple words and phrases each day and practicing them around the dinner table, or labeling everyday items around the house with the corresponding foreign word. Much like crossword puzzles, Sudoku, or other mental games, spending 20-30 minutes each day to study will exercise your mind, which may help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and other diseases. In the short term, your studies will have the added benefit of improving your understanding and appreciation of English grammar and vocabulary, as they will show you previously unnoticed nuances of your native tongue. Finally, proficiency in a second language can open doors for career opportunities and even provide extra pay if you are assigned to a language-coded billet.
You might think that it’s too late to tackle a second language. Although there is truth to the notion that children pick up new languages relatively faster than adults, this doesn’t mean it’s impossible to learn a foreign tongue past a certain age. Modern technology and recent advances in language education have made the process easier than ever. Software programs that aid in immersion, coupled with on-line tutoring by native speakers and the increased and instant availability of foreign language podcasts, periodicals, books, films and television programs can put you on the road to language learning in a short period of time.
No matter if the final end state is fluency, proficiency or simply a greater appreciation, making a modest effort to speak a foreign language will go a long way toward helping you build key relationships with partner nation allies and fostering goodwill whenever you deploy or travel overseas. Happy learning!