31 December 2010


"A quiz -- If a person who speaks three languages is trilingual, and one who speaks four languages is quadrilingual, what is someone called who speaks no foreign languages at all? Answer -- an American."

Sad, but true. For whatever reason (culturocentrism, intellectual laziness), Americans assume that English is the lingua franca in which people from other countries surely must be fluent. Hence the stereotype of the Ugly American -- innate arrogance and a failure (or refusal) to understand local culture. As it happens, one can get by in Europe using only English, because citizens of the EU countries tend to be multilingual, and also because English has become the de facto language of international business, just as it is the default language in aviation.

However, our complaisance is misplaced, and potentially harmful. Savvy people recognize that not only is learning two or more languages an excellent way to improve one's mental acuity, it is also a vital bridge toward making new friends, new business contacts, and learning to understand and enjoy the rich cultural diversity that exists not just globally, but locally as well. Nicholas Kristoff writes in Primero Hay Que Aprender Espanol about "the paramount importance for our children of learning Spanish .... Spanish may not be as prestigious as Mandarin, but it's an everyday presence in the United States. Hispanics made up 16 percent of America's population in 2009, but that is forecast to surge to 29 percent by 2050, according to estimates by the Pew Research Center. (The map below shows Spanish-speaking households as of the 2000 census.)

"As the United States integrates economically with Latin America, Spanish will become more crucial in our lives. More Americans will take vacations in Latin America, do business in Spanish, and eventually move south to retire in countries where the cost of living is far cheaper. We're already seeing growing numbers of Americans retire in Costa Rica (see map below, click on any image to enlarge), drawn by weather and lifestyle as well as low costs and good health care ....

"Another reason to bet on Spanish is that Latin America is, finally, getting its act together. Of all the regions of the world, it is arguably Latin America that rode out the recent economic crisis most comfortably. That means that Spanish .... will be a language of business opportunity in the coming decades. We need to turn our competitive minds not only east, but south.

"Moreover, Spanish is easy enough that kids really can emerge from high school with a very useful command of the language that they will retain for life .... Spanish is a practical add-on to your daily life, meshing with whatever career you choose. If you become a mechanic, you'll be able to communicate better with some customers. If you're the president, you'll campaign more effectively in Texas and Florida."

Kristof is on the mark on all counts. During my twenty years living in southern Arizona, I loved hearing the cadences and melodies of Spanish, and made many Latino friends. After having studied Latin for two years in high school, I made the mistake of taking a year each of Spanish and French in college. I wish I had taken two years of Spanish instead (much though I love hearing French too). Spanish is indeed easy to learn, with far fewer irregularities and exceptions to the rule than one encounters in English, which has many regional dialects, and roots in many ancestral languages. Each vowel has one pronunciation only, and vocabulary has clear links of English (about 60 percent of English, and nearly all of Spanish, derive from Latin).

As for those whose habitual caution or xenophobia leads them into denial about the coming demographic shift in the American landscape, please consider that this is not a threat to American culture (whatever that is), but rather an opportunity to embrace yet another wave of immigrants and new traditions which will only enrich what already exists -- just as past waves of change from Ireland, Poland, Italy, Germany, China and Vietnam (to name a few) have done. America is, above all else, an inclusive nation. Recall the words of The New Colossus, appearing on a bronze plaque on the Statue of Liberty -- "Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Even though learning new languages is most readily achieved in the active minds of young chilcren, it is never too late in life to start. My SO and I are about to embark on a home study course in Spanish. Que divertido !!

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