Opening Doors With a Foreign Language
by Paul Ponce
If you are up to speed on the news, you probably know that US President Donald Trump recently visited Asia. Depending on where you stand on this particular president, you may have heard different things about this trip. But in China, what really made an impact during Trump's recent visit was his 6-year-old granddaughter Arabella singing and speaking perfect Mandarin Chinese. Not just an impact. Her video went totally viral in China.
Unfortunately, most in the West are not aware this even happened or that it matters. But it does. Americans are generally perceived as having little to no interest in other cultures when they travel abroad. And while it is easy to pin that characteristic on conservative Americans, it is a fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans in both red and blue states speaks only one language and has little concern about their children doing otherwise. Or at least, plenty of other issues have priority over this one at your average PTA meeting.
Sure, kids in the USA might take a few years of Spanish in high school, but that is as far as it goes, amigos. Now, of course, you might say, Mr. Trump's granddaughter is a child who has access to an education most kids do not. True. But that is not the point. The point is whether or not Americans (and other monolingual English speakers, say across the pond) will finally get that it is time to learn other languages, if possible at an early age. The point is also whether or not those who resist foreign cultures as a threat to their own will see that culture opens doors and that one does not cancel out the other.
Learning a second language should not be a privilege of some billionaire's granddaughter, but the rule. In China, every child is learning English. And as a result of this viral video, my Chinese students are asking me if every American child is also learning foreign languages like Arabella. Of course, I have no choice but to tell them the sad truth. For Americans, speaking a second language is not a priority. It's not even an issue, even if as a melting pot nation, festivals and words or phrases from other cultures seep in.
It is ironic. After all, it is Trump's own party base that is pushing hardest against opening cultural boundaries. But the mentality of closing doors is not exclusive to the United States of America by any means. Fear-based nationalisms and narrow worldviews also thrive in other regions of the planet whose inhabitants feel that other cultures threaten them and cast a shadow over their identity. And you will always find someone who will inform you of the latest conspiracy theory that reveals why "the threat" is real.
In Argentina, where I live and work, for the past few years, there has been a big debate about whether it is right or wrong for children to dress up for Halloween, a "yanqui" festival where kids have fun (imagine that) and learn three English words. "They are losing their cultural identity", is the most common complaint. I could understand if they were complaining about the cavities they're going to get from all the candy.
But no, foreign culture is the culprit here. I remind them that the celebration of the guy on the cross every December 25th is also not local. But they quickly point out that Americans would never celebrate a festival from another country. "You mean like Cinco de Mayo or St. Patrick´s Day", is my standard reply. I might also add that many Americans say "gesundheit" to a person who has just sneezed.
Oh, and in both countries, thousands of enthusiastic beer lovers celebrate Oktoberfest. Some even show up wearing traditional German lederhosen shorts with suspenders. Ja! Want more? Okay. In most places, it is common to hear French words used when referring to key concepts in gourmet cuisine or in ballet, just as it is common to hear Italian ones in music, maestro. In other words, Celine Dion and Mariah Carey are not ladies with high pitched voices. They are sopranos.
And last I heard, nobody lost their cultural identity because they trained at the local dojo, found all their chakras and then treated themselves to some delicious shawarma. Of course, we could go on all day, with more examples in more languages.
In Argentina's defense, I will say that it has the highest proficiency of English as a foreign language in Latin America. But many of those with high proficiency are privileged kids like Arabella. Still, just like the US, in Argentina, the population at large has a gene pool of mixed origin. So when its citizens aren't closed off about language and culture, they are quick to catch on.
But in today's world, the global cultural gene pool is a click away. Sometimes, it's around the corner. We really have no excuse. So I'm sure little Arabella will benefit greatly from her knowledge, way beyond the short-sightedness of her grandpa and his constituents. The same short-sightedness we are seeing across nationalist movements all over the world, both right-leaning, left-leaning and otherwise. They're freaking out and want to close all the doors.
I say open them. Learn a second language. Or a third. And don't forget to have fun.