By guest writer Elizabeth Hepburn:
As far as I’m concerned, being multilingual is as close to having a superpower as most of us will ever come. We’ve all heard the arguments in favor of bi-(or tri- or quad-)lingualism: the unique relationships that open up like doorways to new dimensions; the conflicts that can be instigated, mediated, or consciously avoided; the cultural and human insights rendered otherwise impenetrable; the de facto sense of accomplishment and subsequent boost to one’s self-worth; the myriad scientifically proven intellectual legs-up that multilinguals have over their monolingual counterparts; the scientifically ignored but easily observable idea that multilingual people are just sexier. But even in the face of all this evidence that shirking the monolingual standard is to the benefit of all, most people I know – in fact, most of the English-speaking world – remain supremely disinterested in joining the multilingual community.
Let’s take my friend Pete as an example. It should be said up front that Pete has an awful lot going for him – he’s handsome, intelligent and exceptionally well traveled, he has an excellent job with one of the most recognized brands in the world, he’s paid well, and has plenty of opportunity for upward mobility. He is, for all intents and purposes, a well-adjusted, motivated adult with an awesome life. Yet on more than one occasion he has expressed a feeling that something, somewhere, is lacking.
During a recent conversation, he mentioned that learning Portuguese would be quite beneficial to him at the office, but he hadn’t taken any steps towards learning it. “What’s the point, really? I would never use it, and it would take so much time to learn.”
This attitude towards language learning is nothing I haven’t heard before. Despite the countless arguments in favor of making the effort, we English speakers remain stubbornly, petulantly monolingual. “I don’t have to know another language! I live in Madison/Pittsburgh/Cleveland/Salt Lake City/Topeka – everyone speaks English!” I hear this argument, which strikes me as profoundly lazy and infuriatingly typical of Entitled America, again and again and again and again, and its sheer lack of perspective staggers me every time.
Nobody (particularly nobody who speaks English natively) has to learn a new language. If you are lucky enough to already know the particular vocabulary and grammar patterns that dominate the worlds of business and tourism, you don’t have to do anything at all. The rest of the world has done all the work already. But the mere fact that language learning is experienced as an obligation rather than an opportunity makes it clear that we as English speakers are missing the point completely.
The whys and wherefores of this unfortunate cultural lack of interest in language diversity could and do fill pages and volumes and shelves. But I’m more interested here in the slow process of unlearning our shared complacency. And I’d like to start with Pete. It may be ubiquitous, but his argument is flawed in two major ways.
According to Wikipedia, that font of endless and incontrovertible knowledge, there are nine countries for which Portuguese is among the official languages: Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, Portugal, Guinea-Bissau, East Timor, Macau, Cape Verde, and the island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe. This brings the global population of Portuguese speakers to almost 260 million.
That’s 260 million distinct opinions and lives and thoughts and attitudes articulated in Portuguese. 260 million lifetimes of stories and experiences waiting to be told. Pete may be interesting already, but the ability to engage with the people and cultures that manifest themselves through Portuguese would give his life the remarkable potential to unfold, to grow 260 million times as rich.
But for many, the hours spent parked at the kitchen table parroting phrases from Rosetta Stone, completing tedious grammar exercises, and reviewing mind-numbing vocabulary drills is just not worth the pay-off of being a better and more well-rounded human. Because let’s face it: learning a language is hard. Right?
Well. It certainly isn’t easy. It takes dedication and time and a willingness to make mistakes. But here’s a secret that some of the most experienced language teachers the world over haven’t figured out yet: becoming your best bilingual self does not have to be an exercise in tedium.
It is 2014. If you are an alive person, you know how to use the Internet. You are on the Internet right now. Take three seconds and unglue your eyes from Facebook and do a quick search for whatever language you want to learn. You will find that there are more dictionaries, YouTube tutorials, articles, books, television shows, movies, songs, podcasts, Twitter users, and web pages in your target language than you will ever in your entire life be able to look at.
Sift through the results, pick something you like, and continue to consume the same types of media that you consume every day, but do it in your new second language. If you like gardening and want to learn French, watch this video. If you like cars and want to learn Tagalog, read this article. Order a Korean translation of a John Lennon biography and teach yourself the alphabet with this infographic while you wait for it to arrive.
If you hate reading, have no desire to learn things, and are really just in it for a promotion or to impress an attractive person, use the Internet to find a drinking buddy who speaks your target language or a native speaker who will Skype with you. Try ChatRoulette! The struggles, failures, and eventual successes of your language learning journey will all make excellent stories, stories that you will soon be able to tell in two languages.
Really, this is the hard part. There are resources and opportunities everywhere, but it is up to the monolinguals of the world (I’m looking at you, Middle America) to put them to good use. It comes down to the learner. There are things that simply cannot be experienced in English, awareness that can’t be reached from just one linguistic perspective. But in order to access these parts of life, you must have a desire to take up space in the world and to see it just a little more clearly. You, like Pete, must make a choice to be interested enough to be interesting.
About the author:
Elizabeth Hepburn is a teacher and professional nomad, as well as the owner/co-founder/Director of Education at DisLangue, an up-and-coming language learning company based in Paris. Born from the founders’ desire to spread multilingualism over traditional English-only education, DisLangue focuses on personalized lessons for learners of any language, drawing from each student’s individual strengths and learning styles. For more information on the project, check out the promotional video here.
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