Language & Culture
Why One Language Isn’t Enough
By Morgan Brown, Broadreach Instructor
Picture this: You find yourself in some exotic foreign country, in the middle of a bustling shopping center. You begin approaching a gentleman behind the counter to place an order. Maybe you want a sandwich, or a bus ticket, or just a coffee – something trivial, yet entirely necessary. You inch up the line, mentally rehearsing exactly what you’re going to say. The person in front of you leaves. The man looks at you expectantly, you open your mouth… and nothing comes out. You’re paralyzed, locked in a struggle between a burning desire to speak and the certain knowledge that he will have no idea what you’re saying. Finally, a sound emerges from your throat.
“Can I – uh… poo – ay – doe ten – air – uh… shoot… sor – I mean, lo siento.”
Face burning, you turn away and decide that whatever you needed, it actually wasn’t that important. As you walk away you shake your head to yourself, muttering under your breath, “Why in the world didn’t I pay more attention in Spanish class?”
IF IT’S AN ENGLISH SPEAKING WORLD, WHY BOTHER?
If you’ve been fortunate enough to have an experience in a non-English speaking country, or even spent time with non-English speakers, something from the above episode probably seems familiar to you. Being unable to effectively communicate even your most basic desires is a crippling feeling, one that is not easily forgotten.
It is entirely possible to spend decades in the US without uttering a single syllable of a language other than English. That fact alone is enough for many to dismiss learning a second language as a “waste of time.” Other evasions you might have heard include: “It’s weird,” “It’s too hard,” “It takes too long,” or, my least favorite, “Why don’t they just learn English?” Yes, these excuses fly thick and fast in classrooms, airports and homes across the country. It is far too easy to be convinced that only speaking our singular, English language is enough. I’m here to convince you otherwise.
IT OPENS UP OPPORTUNITIES
Of all global citizens, English speakers have perhaps the most convincing reason for staying within the protective shelter of their mother tongue. Our language is universal, heard on street corners from New York to New Guinea, from Prague to Peru. According to London-based language school St. George International, well over 1 billion people in the world can communicate to some extent in English. Over 80 nations list English as some sort of “official” language, be it primary or secondary. In other words, it’s more difficult to avoid English than to find it.
However, relying solely upon English as a means of communication also means that you are choosing to exclude yourself from the other 6 billion people and 100+ countries in the world. You are shutting the door on a sea of potential friends, business contacts or even significant others, as well as an unimaginable number of new experiences in foreign places. Speaking a foreign language will expand your window of access and opportunity in the rest of the world.
Even if you have no plans or desire to travel outside of the United States, you will still encounter ample opportunity to connect with others through a foreign language. According to a 2015 study by the Instituto Cervantes, the United States is now the second largest Spanish-speaking country, behind Mexico. We’re ranked even higher than Spain! Add that to the dozens of other languages spoken throughout the country, and it becomes obvious how advantageous a foreign language can be for forming new connections, even in your home state.
IT WILL IMPROVE YOUR ENGLISH
Past participle? Gerund? Infinitive? Subject verb agreement? Sounds like some sort of horrific flashback from freshman English class. Speaking our native tongue has become as natural as breathing; we don’t have to think twice about the many moving parts that go into forming a coherent sentence. Take on learning a second language, and this comfortability is completely turned on its head. No longer can you speak or read without a second thought. Identifying every noun or verb takes effort; you have to remember what adverbs modify and what a pronoun looks like.
There’s no denying this requires effort we haven’t had to expend since elementary school, but it’s well worth it. I once had a Spanish teacher say to me that you can’t ever be good at Spanish without first understanding English. In other words, studying a new language forces you to solidify your understanding of the old.
Confidence speaking in front of others also increases by leaps in bounds. After years spent bumbling through conversations and presentations in Spanish, doing the same in English seems laughably easy. Between the forced practice in grammar, creativity and speaking outside of my comfort zone, I can now say without a doubt that learning another language has made me a better communicator in English.
IT BUILDS EMPATHY
My final, and perhaps most important, reason for encouraging study of a new language stems from the age-old advice “treat others how you want to be treated.” How often in our daily lives do we encounter someone who has chosen to learn English as a second language? It may be a teacher, business contact, neighbor or Uber driver. Regardless of their position, all second language learners are putting a tremendous amount of effort into something that they may never master.
The fact is, it takes an enormous amount of courage, humility, persistence and intelligence to communicate using a second language. Every day interactions become a daunting task, simple jokes are beyond your reach and your entire personality becomes awkwardly filtered. It is easy to imagine the dedication required to overcome these challenges yet impossible to truly understand until you’ve faced them personally. There is only one way to garner true empathy for second language learners: begin studying yourself. Not only will you gain a respect for what they have accomplished, but you will better understand how to continue helping them in their linguistic journey.
MY CHALLENGE TO YOU
Over the past 8 years I have had the incredible opportunity to pursue a study of the Spanish language. I do not exaggerate when I say that the experience has been life-changing. I have spent well over a year in seven different Spanish-speaking countries, enjoying relationships and experiences that would have otherwise been impossible. I have grown as a communicator, both in Spanish and in English, and have gained an enormous respect for those I meet, in this country or abroad, who have chosen to study another language.
I could write pages more about why I think such study is valuable. Instead, I would like to offer a challenge to my readers. Regardless of age, interest or imagined ability, I challenge you to delve into a new language. If you’re already studying, great! Continue to explore a little deeper. If you’ve never dreamed of speaking something other than English, even better! Start to learn a few phrases of Spanish, French, German or another language of your choosing. I promise you it will be one of the most difficult things that you have done, and I promise you that it will be one of the most worthwhile. New opportunities will open for you. You will become a better communicator in all languages. You will build empathy for other language learners. You will come to realize that, even in this English-speaking world, one language just isn’t enough.
Morgan grew up in Maine, making his way to Vermont to major in Spanish at Saint Michael’s College. During school, he studied abroad in Argentina and returned to South America after graduating to work at a resort in Chile. He now lives in Colorado and has spent two summer with Broadreach, leading our Ecuador & Galapagos Biodiversity and Iceland Advanced Photography programs. After finding out the best outdoor spots by conversing with locals, you will find Morgan exploring new countries by snowboarding, hiking and mountain biking.