One of the most common companion images attached to the word “language,” other than “foreign,” is “barrier.” Playing to the myth of national unity, American culture in many ways discourages the learning of languages other than English. In American schools, it’s fashionable to push hard for STEM in the curriculum (science/technology/engineering/math), on the premise that we have fallen behind the rest of the world in those areas. We forget that we’re even farther behind in language ability. Our best efforts to encourage foreign language tend to damn with faint praise. (“A second language may help you…with something else! In International Business, for example.”) Of course, FLEM doesn’t sound nearly as pleasant as STEM…
In most countries of the world, almost everyone speaks more than one language–often several–fluently. We might have a more enjoyable connection to languages if we could let go of the “barrier” image. That is the attitude too long wielded by empires to force the language of the victor on the conquered, thereby banishing the collective memory archived in the Mother Tongue.
We could, instead, associate languages with “Portals.” The diverse languages of the world occupy rooms in the labyrinthine medina of humanity. Each door opens upon another room, full of unfamiliar vocalizations and the accompanying rush of seductive aromas. Standing in one room, hearing and smelling the intrigue in the adjoining room, we humans long to communicate. When cultures connect in respectful ways, languages and the memory they hold mingle and mutually enrich each other.
Growing up in a trilingual family gave me a head start on feeling at home in the multilingual human race. This inheritance has always offered me a well-spring of unearned pleasure. I wish I could confer it on everyone who would like to venture beyond the Anglophone room, and meander a bit beyond its walls. Every language offers access through another passageway. That can lead to great poetry, lyrics of Lieder-cycles, foreign movies without the eye-ache from reading subtitles, the secrets of an old cookbook, an impromptu pot-luck in a train compartment, and even true love after an international business deal falls through.
I’ve taught language or interpreted for the past 35 years or so. One language has led to another, through travel or simply a longing to understand. The joy of it has always been in people, both my students and the people from other cultures I might not have come to know had I not spoken their language.
In this Share the Wealth, we will have a conversation—multi-lingual, if you’d like—about the role that language has played in our lives.
Sunday 31 January 2016
Potluck dinner begins at 6:00
Suzanne begins sharing at 6:45
At the home of Celine Shallon
4315A Shaw Boulevard
(On the corner of Tower Grove and Shaw)