Knowing a Second Language a Must Today


Living between two great oceans, North Americans generally tend to think of English as being the only language necessary. Unfortunately it is common to hear the sneer, "If they want to talk to us, let them learn English."

Such arrogance is simple stupidity.

If the United States needs anything today it is foreign friends. Language opens doors to other people's lives, hurts and joys. Learning another tongue can shed light on why the foreigners are the way they are.

Friendships and mutual respect evolve from knowing your host's or your guest's mother tongue. When I spoke in Chinese in Taiwan or mainland China smiles replaced frowns, strangers became friends. (And the smiles would quickly turn to laughter when I got the word-order wrong or my tones were indistinct.)

Such interaction goes a long way in bringing people together. Living in Texas now, I wish I could speak to my Mexican neighbors. They live in one world and I live in another. Worlds that can be bridged through knowing each other's native tongue. Fears can be overcome.

The rich and vibrant Spanish language should be required in every Texas elementary school. Better, start in kindergarten. Linguists and educators have finally come around to see the early years are best for gaining and retaining another language.

One reason our system has failed is simply because we have started language study in high school. That is too late for most. Some will grasp and retain it, but most, like myself, forget high school language quickly. The earlier years are much better in laying a language foundation that can be built upon.

One of the rarest of Anglo Texans is one that is bilingual. It has not always been that way. Less than a hundred years ago the Concho River area was awash with Spanish, German, Czech and even an Indian-speaker now and then.

In Taipei, Taiwan, we had neighbors from Denmark. Their 5-year old son spoke Danish with his parents, Taiwanese to the cook, Mandarin on the school grounds and English with me--all without any effort or urging. It was something most Europeans saw as a way of life. I'm still amazed by it.

I wanted to know more about the education system in China. After visiting various schools in Shanghai and Nanjing, I learned that English lessons begin in the third grade. Not all will become linguists, but all will be exposed to the world in which English is becoming the world's lingua franca.

I am constantly amazed by the variety of human thought, culture, society and wide range of literature expressed in the languages of our world. There are well over 5,000 languages and dialects spoken in today's world. Most everyone is bilingual or trilingual. Everywhere but America: Only 9 percent of Americans speak a second language; 53 percent of Europeans do.

After Sept. 11, 2001, our government discovered they had hundreds of thousands of Arabic and Farsi documents, letters and notes and few able translators. Little thought was given to really knowing what others were saying, planning or thinking.

The late Illinois Sen. Paul Simon pointed out that "some 80 federal agencies need proficiency in nearly 100 foreign languages" to deal with everything from terrorist threats to narcotic trafficking and communicable diseases.

The "English Only Spoken Here" mentality shuts out worlds of culture and wisdom--worlds that are lost through translations. The politicians who want a law making English the only language are short-sighted. English will change, all living languages do, and it will not be replaced. Adding another language which not only enriches us and makes our country into the real world leader we ought to be.

Britt Towery is a former teacher, missionary and pastor who lives in San Angelo, Texas.

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