Want to change the world? Learn a language (Part 1 of 2)

April 29, 2010

In the movie Dead Poet’s Society (1989), the fictional English teacher, Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, tells his class of adolescent boys, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” It’s a notion that I’ve shared with my second language students on many occasions. I tell them that by learning a second language (or a third or a fourth or a fifth), they learn new ways of understanding not only themselves, but the world around us.

The challenges of learning another language are immense. There’s vocabulary to be acquired, grammar to master and verb conjugations to memorize. All of this information and more must be internalized, synthesized and then reproduced spontaneously as interactive speech. It’s an enormous feat. And it’s an enormous feat that millions have undertaken.

But to what end? We like to tell our students that their job prospects are better if they learn other languages. But are they really? I live in an affluent area of Canada, where young men (and women, though far fewer of them), can leave high school early and go north to work on oil rigs or in the towns that support the oil business. They can make cash, and lots of it, quickly. It’s hard work, under intense conditions. Yet thousands of them do it. Try telling them that if they learn a second language their job prospects are going to be better. They’ll scoff, turn around and drive away in a shiny new truck, that’s been fully paid for in cash.

So, the job prospect line doesn’t really fly very well where I live.

Travelling to other countries? There are plenty of tourist areas in the world where the locals have thrown themselves into learning the language of the tourists precisely to make them feel more welcome. People can travel to resorts all over the world and be served by locals who speak their language. In fact, I’ve heard people say, “Why should I learn their language when they’ll learn mine?”

So, the travelling argument seems a bit hollow, too.

What’s the real reason we believe so strongly that learning another language is important? It’s what that fictional character, Keating said, “because words and ideas can change the world.” When we commit ourselves to learning another language, we challenge ourselves to dig deep into ourselves to tap into our own power to communicate with others, to reach out, to connect.

When we take the plunge and test our communicative skills in another language, we reach inside and overcome our fears of making mistakes, fear of being rejected by others, fear of not being good enough, fear of not fitting in. We try anyway. We connect, however imperfectly, and that leads to wanting to understand more, learn more and discover more.

As we learn other languages we also learn about other cultures, other people, other faiths, other ways of living and being and looking at the world. We find our own sense of who we are profoundly enriched and deepened in ways we could not have otherwise imagined.

It’s hard to explain this to someone who doesn’t believe there’s any value in learning other languages. There are those who will never be convinced. Rather than trying to implore them with hollow arguments that are hard to back up, instead, we can offer concrete examples of individuals who changed the world by learning other languages. Here are some examples:

Albert Einstein. He was born in Switzerland and spoke German as his first language. (Anecdotally, I am told that he did not speak at all until he was five years old.) He learned English as a Second Language.

Nelson Mandela. His first language was Xhosa, an African dialect. He learned English as a Second Language.

Mohandas Gandhi. His first language was Gujarati. He went on to learn 10 additional languages.

Rigoberta Menchu. Her first language was Quechua, an indigenous language of her native Guatemala. As I understand it, she learned Spanish in order to give her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize which she was awarded in 1992.

Critics would argue that all of these public figures learned a language of the dominant population and would go on to discuss issues of power and oppression. My aim here is not to enter into such a discussion, but merely to point out that the work that these individuals did would not have been possible if they had not learned other languages.

That is a bold statement and I stand behind it. Let me repeat it: the work these influential people did would not have been possible if they had not learned other languages. Why? Because learning other languages gave them opportunities to engage in meaningful conversations, connect with others and do the work that they were so deeply passionate about a larger scale. They moved beyond the parochial into the global. They transcended personal, political, scientific and historical boundaries. With their words and ideas they changed the world.

When we learn other languages, we change who we are. We grow to understand and appreciate the world around us in new and meaningful ways. As we change, so the world changes. That’s the real reason we believe in the power of learning other languages. Because when we do, we learn to reach out to others, connect deeply and express our passion for life and our life’s work in profoundly transformative ways.

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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


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