Language: A Work of Heart

There are roughly 7,000 languages spoken worldwide. That’s 7,000 ways to say “I love you”, 7,000 ways to ask to go to the bathroom, and most importantly, 7,000 ways to say f*ck you! (Who wouldn’t want to know how to say that in more than one language?) For as long as I can remember, language has always been fascinating to me. It’s possibly the greatest tool we have at our disposal, and there is something remarkable about how little we take advantage of the world it offers us. Aside from the many ways you can curse someone out, language is a window to cultures, the people and the histories that come with the words they speak. Language has the ability of bringing people together, but it has also been something used to divide people. The question is: does it have to be?

With my experience of learning Spanish in an American school, I am fascinated by the way other countries teach language to their youth. My 11-year-old cousin from the Czech Republic is currently learning her third language in school. Yes, you read that correctly: Czech, English and now German, all three languages offered by her school. That puts my bilingualism to shame and me about 10 years behind in my third language acquisition. When I visited my family back in 2016, I was still figuring out my desired field of teaching and so I shadowed my cousin at her school. I was amazed, to say the least, at how animated the faculty was about language development, and how they taught important cultural subjects along with language skills. This school was a mastermind for cranking out brilliant students who would probably know five languages by the time they got to college. The entire time I was there I kept thinking, “what’s up with the United States?” Why don’t we instill this kind of passion for language development in our students? Better yet, how can we?

 

After nearly 18 years of learning Spanish in school, I would like to say that America sucks at teaching non-English languages. (Sorry to all my Spanish teachers, but it’s true). I grew up speaking Spanish as my second language, English being my first. I was lucky to attend a school that completely immersed me in the Spanish language and Latin culture for the beginning years of my education, but that only took me so far. After graduating high school I spent six months living in Peru, Chile and Ecuador, all Spanish-speaking countries that required me to develop language skills in ways unattainable in a classroom setting. Obviously, the answer to this problem in the U.S is not, “we all need to live in a foreign country.” Hell no, because that’s not really feasible nor universally affordable. My question is, how can we take that wanderlust traveler’s high from its context abroad and place it in the classroom setting? Maybe the answer to that is looking outside the context of the classroom into the social context of our country.

 

The United States Census Bureau reported that over 350 languages are spoken in the United States, Spanish being the second most spoken language after English, and Chinese following close behind. Fun fact about the United States: there is no official language, many people just assume it to be English! You may or may not have already known that, but either way, this means we need to take it upon ourselves to become multilingual. Where does that start? Most often it starts in our schools. In school, we are encouraged to take a second language for X number of years because we are told that colleges require a certain number of years of a language to gain acceptance. For that reason alone, many people take languages in high school. However, most American schools see language as an elective, a side-thought that is easily cast away when funds are low, like the arts. (Surprised much?) Through this mentality we are teaching young people, all people to see multilingualism as optional and encourage the cycle of monolingualism which then feeds into colonialism and xenophobia. In schools that have good language departments, what is often missing is the bridging of the linguistic aspect to cultural and sociocultural aspects, which would give students a greater understanding of the language in connection to the world we all share.

 

When learning Spanish in high school, I felt as though we were only building and rebuilding the skeletal framework of a language. It felt like we were learning the same thing over and over again, the basic structure of language, grammar, basic sayings--a “linguistic survival kit” if you will. Not to say that these aren’t important parts of a language to develop, just that there is more to language than conjugating verbs. We need to learn how to use it and what using it looks like and means in contexts outside of the classroom. We could speak English long before we knew what a “verb” was (I still don’t really know what an adverb is), language isn’t just grammar it’s human interaction and connection that makes it so rich. This doesn’t mean that we are doomed of ever learning a language in our early years of schooling, just that we need to be better at teaching the culture, history, literature and the arts behind a spoken language, and dive deeper into all language has to offer us.

 

You’re probably thinking, “so what?” Most of us reading this are probably done with high school and in college by now. We all have busy schedules and if language requirements don’t apply to you and you don’t have time to take another course, let alone pay for one, what’s the point? The point is to reclaim the universality of language. Often times, I think of language learners as business people, travel bloggers, people who are moving to a new country, etc. It’s important that we reclaim language development from what has become exclusive and elitist, intended only for those who have access to classes, abilities to travel and live abroad. Society should be held accountable for making language learning accessible to all people as a means for communication.

 

While many studies say that it’s best to learn languages when you’re younger because your brain is more malleable, I think there is no expiration date on learning a language. You don’t have to be fluent to engage with a person who doesn’t speak your language, but there are ways to learn the basics, to understand a little more about the culture than you did before. And like all great things in this world: there’s an app for that!  

  1. Coursera is a great online resource for learning languages with classes offered online from Universities all over the world. You can learn Korean, Romanian, Vietnamese, French –– literally any language you can think of, there’s a class for that!

  2. I’m trying to learn Portuguese right now and downloaded some cool apps like Duolingo and Rosetta Stone which do 15-minute lessons (great for bus rides or between classes) and word-a-day activities that teach you the basics and are a lot of fun!

  3. Once again, I’m going to stress music. It’s amazing how music teaches you language, and you don’t even have to know what they are saying half the time! I listen to a lot of music in Spanish and I find myself learning new words all the time, and I find my pronunciation is way better from singing a long! (Here’s a link to my Spanish Spotify playlist I have been listening to like crazy!)

  4. Netflix. Netflix. Netflix. It’s unbelievable how many shows they offer in different languages. From Korean Drama shows to Telenovelas and French films, it’s got a variety of entertaining shows. You can even put on English subtitles while watching because simply listening to the spoken language is helping you learn. Also, Netflix has an option to put subtitles in other languages on English T.V. shows so you can read what Betty and Jughead are saying in Spanish if you want to!

  5. There are a lot of books out there that have one side in English, one side in a different language that are super helpful in language learning. I read poetry books all the time in Spanish with an English translation on the opposite side.

 

Obviously, the list goes on. Mind you, none of this will help you learn a language overnight, or in a week, or in time for your week-long vacation to Europe this summer. But it does open your mind to letting language become a part of your daily life. We live in a country that is a melting pot of language and culture, and although we may not see it as something that affects our lives, it does, so why not make it a part of your daily routine? Share music with your friends in another language, read the translation in English together and know what you’re singing along to! Order food in Spanish the next time you go out for Mexican food, and I bet they will smile at you at least trying to speak their language! Take it upon yourself to exercise your brain in a new way, and you’ll find that it completely changes the way you see the world, starting with a single word.