Mother Tongue

Parlez-vous français?

¿Habla español?

Sprichst du Deutsch?

Not likely.

Chances are pretty good you don’t speak a second language.  According to a 2006 study, only about a quarter of Americans do.   And among bilinguals, nearly 90% say they learned their second language at home as a child.  Only a left-over few report learning a second language through education or exposure outside the home.

As with just about everything else in modern America, language has become a political weapon.   Those in our country who lack English proficiency are occasionally ridiculed in political speeches, and the ubiquitous “para español, oprima uno” often triggers open anger among English speakers who find themselves forced to listen to an extra two seconds of content while navigating through yet another irritating voicemail jungle.

By a four to one margin over all competitors, English is what we speak in America.  So far 31 states have taken the time to make English their official language.  Idaho is among them, although the Gem State came to the party only recently (2007), several years behind blue states like California (1986) and Massachusetts (2002).

A few years back I remember posters of Uncle Sam portrayed in his iconic stern-faced, finger-pointed image surrounded by the words “Welcome to America.  Now speak English.”

If only it was that simple.

English is a wickedly difficult language to learn.   Rules randomly backfire, and words change meaning faster than popcorn pops in my microwave. (My alarm goes off every morning—it goes where?)  Pronunciation is adventurous.   (Care to explain tough vs. though?).

For native English speakers, it’s all so easy.  I speak it fluently, so why can’t you?

About eight years ago I decided to learn a second language.  Just to challenge myself.  My wife has studied Spanish for years.  Why, I decided, should she have all the fun?  So I set out to learn French.  I bought one of those computer programs and went to work.

Eight years later I can passably get through most simple conversations, but that’s about it.  During a vacation in Quebec I didn’t make a fool of myself.   However, subtleties still elude me.  Sophisticated French verb tenses may as well be in Chinese.

But still, my wife and I now share a collective basic command of three languages that allows us to travel to a lot of countries and be able to get our points across to someone. This has enriched us considerably.

I spent about three decades in broadcast journalism.  Over the years I’ve posted a poll on the local webpage of three different cities asking “Do you speak a second language?”  The results of all three polls were remarkably similar.  About 25% said yes.  About 35% say no, but they’d like to.  And in each poll about 40% said they don’t speak a second language and have absolutely no interest in learning one.

I struggle to understand this kind of thinking.  In a world where fluency in multiple languages is a sign of stature and achievement, we choose instead to collectively wrap ourselves in a security blanket of self-imposed ignorance.   Sharing cultures and languages with those who are different than us leaves us wiser and enriched.  It fuels understanding and empathy, and tends to smother ignorance and distrust.

I’ve known people who have concluded that those who cannot express their thoughts in fluent English are either stupid or unmotivated.  If you share that view, I would invite you to do a quick Google search to see how many ESL classes exist in your community.  Then, if you want to be impressed, attend a few of those classes and meet some of the people who are trying with sometimes desperate effort to gain traction in our quirky, nonsensical mother tongue.  While you’re at it, why not put the shoe on the other foot and try learning a second language yourself?  It’s not something you have to do, but it’s one of the best ways I know to help you learn that we’re all in the same boat, just trying to connect with one another in the aftermath of Babel.

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