I recently posted about how the U.S. military offers bonus pay to soldiers with demonstrated foreign language skills. In the post I suggested that language program managers might cite military examples when lobbying for funding for language programs.
The idea of advocating for language program funding by citing examples of military language training might not sit well with some language program administrators and teachers. In my experience, some of my most beloved colleagues are also peace activists and slightly (if not adamantly) anti-military.
Achieving peace one word at a time
But what if part of the answer to the global issues we face today was increasing, rather than decreasing, the focus we as a society place on communicating and appreciating one another’s languages and cultures? I won’t be so naive to say that learning languages is a panacea to all that is wrong with the world. But I do believe that peace and understanding are built one person at a time. One person, communicating with one person, listening and trying to understand one person. This is how we challenge our assumptions, learn about one another and wrap our minds around different ways of life, sharing, raising our children, worshipping, of thinking… and of living and being.
To speak another’s language is to begin to see the world from his or her point of view. We may never be able to fully understand those whose ways of life and beliefs differ so drastically from ours. But perhaps we do not have to fully understand. Perhaps we need only to begin to understand, in order for things to change for the better. There is a saying in English about how to overcome a seemingly insurmountable problem:
How do you eat an elephant? Answer: one bite at a time.
This could be modified to:
How do you achieve world peace? Answer: One word at a time.
Imagine a peace corps dedicated to global understanding through language learning: Daily verb conjugation drills, vocabulary drills, grammar sequences, language simulations, engaging with the other in one-on-one conversations in real time, with dictionaries and language apps instead of weapons.
What on earth might happen?
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.