Bill Weir Loves Language Teachers — Wishes He Had Listened to His
Bill Weir, travel correspondent and host of CNN Wonder List, has his dream job. He gets to jet all over the world to capture images and weave stories together from what he finds. It’s all perfect, except for one thing — Bill is monolingual.
“I wish I could travel back in time and punch my teenage self in the face for not paying attention. I was one of those horrible language students who didn’t figure I would ever need it.”
Bill, although an engaging speaker, seemed an odd choice to address thousands of language teachers at the 2017 ACTFL annual convention in Nashville in November. But Bill is full of praise for the teachers helping today’s American teens gain their multilingual chops, including one special teacher Bill met in the green room before she went on stage — Ying Jin. She had just won National Language Teacher of the Year — the first Chinese teacher to do so. In this episode, we’ll take you behind the scenes with Bill and Ying to hear what they hope for America.
Regrets of an International Reporter
Bill has been traveling to Patagonia and Egypt, to Madagascar and Bhutan, to New Zealand and Vanuatu. He is in search of places on the planet on the brink of change, in search of what makes people happy, and in search of environmental assaults as we continue to inflict harm on our biosphere. Yet every time the seatbelt sign comes on and he’s about to land in another country, he feels regret that he speaks only English.
“I hated conjugation. I hated vocabulary,” Bill admitted to the thousands of language teachers in the audience during his keynote address. “And I if I could go back in time, if I could build a time machine where I could reach through a portal and grab my high school or college self by the neck, when I was being such an obstinate brat about language studies and tell them, ‘You’re going to need this! You need this language when they send you to Chile to do live coverage of miners trapped in a mine, or when they sent you to Puerto Rico to cover Hurricane Maria, or any other places around the world that I’ve been lucky enough to visit.’ Every time I kick myself…”
In an interview after his speech, he brightened as he spoke of his 13-year old daughter. “My little girl loves Latin! Because her professor is one of these brilliant, gifted teachers who touches her in a certain way, as you know, with passion about the language.”
Bill hopes his daughter will continue with Spanish, and perhaps Mandarin and Arabic, doing what he wishes he had done.
Fifty years after America immigration reform, a beautiful harvest of languages
American immigration reform in the 1960s opened the door to building an America more representative of the world. It abolished all reference to race, which had been written into prior immigration laws. One of the results was the arrival of more Asians, including more Chinese, whose American children and grandchildren now succeed so fluidly in universities and in the professions. Another result is that Chinese is the third-most-spoken language in the United States after English and Spanish, now spoken by almost 3 million Americans. Moreover, it’s an increasingly popular language among students who don’t have Chinese heritages. When Ying Jin was awarded ACTFL’s National Language Teacher of the Year at its annual convention November 17-19, it marked a milestone in our changing American landscape. Fifty years after the immigration law went into effect, our American ambassador for languages will be a teacher of Chinese.
I was able to catch up with Ying the day she was selected from among five regional finalists. I asked her what she was feeling.
“I’m a little scared and definitely excited, not just that I’m the first Chinese language teacher of the year, but rather, that I’m going to represent all languages.”
What’s her message to America, I ask.
“I really feel like every American should be proficient in English and at least one other world language. That’s really what I want to tell our society. Learning a language is beautiful and understanding that culture is beautiful. I know we’re behind, compared with a lot of other countries, but you know, let’s do it! We should work together to help American kids to be 21st-century ready.”
Hear the story, be the story
Hear Bill Weir and Ying Jin on Episode 18 of America the Bilingual. We are a storytelling podcast for those helping to create the bilingual movement in America.