Much has been written about the value of multilingualism in our “global” world. The deficiencies and inadequacies of language education in the United States are daily lamented, and rightly so. For although American students periodically display a faddish interest in learning other languages (Russian during the Cold War, Arabic in the years since 9/11, and, as U.S. debt to China mounts, Chinese), the New York Times reported in February of this year that only nine percent of Americans speak (never mind read) a foreign language.
Scholars and policy-makers attribute a great deal of skills to the acquisition of foreign languages: creativity, cultural awareness and sensitivity, mental flexibility, interpersonal abilities, problem-solving capabilities, and other “cognitive and meta-cognitive advantages.” Some argue that by learning another language, you can put yourself in another’s shoes, see the world through the eyes of others, and meaningfully experience cultures and societies beyond your own. Even India Currents’ Sarita Sarvate has discussed Americans’ infamous monolingualism (“Everyone Should Learn Español,” December 2007), speculating that, “[for many Americans, learning to speak Spanish] is like seeing the world for the first time.”
It is certainly true that speaking another tongue does as much for the training of the eyes as for the ears. But it is a far cry from the early stammerings and awkward articulations of a beginning student of any foreign language, to the substantive inhabitance of other viewpoints. Although the aspiration of “seeing the world from another vantage point” is admirable, it takes a lot more than “bonjour,” “buenos dias,” and “namaste” to effect real intercultural understanding and exchange. Can we really equate the study of a new language to “seeing the world for the first time”? And is that the goal?
For many American students, foreign language education will stop after a couple years of high school-level instruction. They may never acquire the “skills” touted by the global marketplace, nor meaningfully inhabit another cultural perspective. But I believe there is something far more basic, fundamental, even structural, to be gained.
Foreign language study for research competency is a vital component of any doctoral program in the humanities and social sciences, so, even after passing an examination in the translation of Spanish, I have recently had to learn a new language. This summer, I took an introductory French workshop which met for twenty-five hours a week, for ten weeks, and covered a year’s worth of French. This was not, of course, my first experience in a beginning language course. I had taken Spanish in high school, Hindi in college, and have been struggling with the unofficial study of Malayalam since I was a child.
But every time you learn a language, you must start over. No matter how many other languages you know, you are reduced to the guttural enunciations of unfamiliar vowel sounds and consonant pairings, with little more verbal capacity than the caveman-like point-and-name of “C’est une chaise.” “Yeh kursi hai.”“Es una silla.” “It is a chair.” To learn a new language is to be temporarily infantilized, to know once more what it is to be new to the world, to see before you familiar objects, people, and places, but have no facility with names.
When I wrote my first complete French sentence, I had to stop and marvel at the wonder of the chain of words, the fluency of meaning, the confidence of letter following letter. Yes. It. is. a. chair. It is a chair. It is a chair. C’est une chaise. To learn a new language is to remember what it is to derive pleasure and meaning from the composition of a basic sentence. It is something incredible that most of us have not experienced since we were children. I can only imagine experiencing it with one’s own children once again.
Far from enabling me to inhabit the French character, or say anything meaningful about French society (though our class did, of course, attempt to summarize the plot of Amélie and sing along to the songs of the 1980s French pop group, Luna Parker; the latter exercise being slightly more successful than the former), beginning to learn the language forced me to stand a little more precariously in my own shoes. “Shoes” which are also chaussures. “My shoes” which are also les miennes. And rather than exert my intellectual resources toward matters of intercultural exchange, I constantly felt that said resources were on vacation, licensed for summer hibernation. To learn a new language, you actually have to check your adult brain at the door.
Maybe learning to speak another language is not like seeing the world for the first time, but more aptly like speaking the world for the first time.
I want to insist here on the difference between “seeing” and “speaking.” The one typically precedes the other, though not always, and not by necessity, and certainly the two faculties can coincide. Nevertheless, they are substantively different operations. Often, we see much more than we can say; we feel we know much more than we can account for. We have feelings, intuitions, and hunches that escape words that defy our attempts at encapsulation in linguistic symbols.
Starting to learn French didn’t change my world or my perspective, but it did, for those few hours every day, radically transform my ability to describe the world, to interact in and with the world, and to account for myself as one among others. Language study reminds us that linguistic fluency—even of the monolingual (shall we say American?) variety—is a tremendous boon.
In our fast-talk, fast-write, text-happy world, in which words flow from fingertips into gadgets as fast as we can receive them into headsets and onto screens, sometimes it’s good to be reminded that it wasn’t always so easy. Once upon a time, you really had to search for a word.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.