If speaking naturally from actual knowledge of the same language is like hugging, speaking through machine translation is like waving from across the street.
We should use technology both for casual translations of many languages, and to help us deepen our understanding of languages and the people who speak them. Think of technology as enhancing human capabilities, rather than replacing them.
We now know that children who are supported in their heritage language skills match or exceed students who are denied the learning of their heritage languages.
But for most of the 20th century, immigrant parents commonly suppressed their heritage languages, not speaking Polish or Italian or Spanish to their children. Like all parents, they wanted their children to do better than themselves, and to not suffer the prejudice they had suffered from having imperfect English. The goal was unaccented English—and only English—as the mark of being fully American. Moreover, up until the 1960s, the “scientific” evidence supported the idea that more than one language would confuse children and hold them back in school.
Today, attitudes— both popular and scientific—have shifted. Unaccented and perfect English is still the goal, but added to it is the capacity to speak the family’s heritage language, and maintain important cultural connections.
Adults can also learn languages, and in some ways, better than can children.
Today’s adults have never had better conditions for language learning—classroom teaching is better; technology makes learning more game-like; we can watch movies, listen to music, read newspapers, magazines and books in world languages with ease. It’s easier to travel to other countries—both for real, and virtually.
With rapidly improving artificial intelligence, we are entering a golden age of language learning.
From birth to the age of 5 or 6, children’s brains are wired for language learning. If Mom speaks one language, Dad another and everyone else a third, children will sort it out and in a few years be able to converse in all three.
Even with a monolingual beginning, once school-age, children respond well to dual-language schools where they are taught in two languages. The number of dual-language schools producing bilingual and biliterate students is growing. More states are recognizing high-school graduates for achieving biliteracy with a Seal of Biliteracy on their diplomas.
Bilingualism is a gift we know how to give.
In the United States, we have 65 million people who speak a language other than English at home.
Most of these people also speak English well and thus are bilingual. In addition to having some 40 million Spanish speakers and 2.5 million Chinese speakers, we have at least 250,000 speakers of 30 different world languages. No country can match America in terms of our numbers of people who speak the world’s most commonly spoken languages. We view the linguistic skills of bilingual Americans as our nation’s linguistic capital, a subset of our human capital.
It enhances peace within our borders and projects soft power beyond our borders. International linguistic capital is something to be prized, preserved, and built upon.
While the ability to speak one another’s languages is no formula for peace (as civil wars readily testify), the process of learning the language of another group is inherently pacifying.
Language learners can’t help but learn another culture while learning a language, and when you know more about a culture, it’s common to come to admire, and even love, aspects of it. What’s more, when language learners practice with people from another language group, they learn about one another, they break down prejudices, they often become friends.
It is the process of language learning even more than the end result—the journey rather than the destination—that leads to more peace in the world.
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Does the whole world speak English? Not quite, not even in France, if you really want to do business. Meet Ben Macklowe, a New York City kid, who grew up as a monolingual English speaker, until he messed up big time and then took matters into his own hands. Now he’s passing The Gift on to his baby boys. The following 14 minutes may light your path…
Beckie has been devoted to teaching French ever since she graduated from Boston University in 2007 with a B.S. in Modern Foreign Language Education and a B.A. in French Language and Literature. (She also holds an MAEd. in Foreign Language Education for French from Wake Forest University.) Beckie spent a year in Côte d’Ivoire designing and implementing the pilot of a French immersion program for JourneyCorps humanitarian volunteers. She currently teaches French at Lexington High School in Massachusetts.
Beckie is the Chair of the Global Engagement Initiative Committee of ACTFL, where she also sits on the advisory board of its New England branch and is a board member of its Massachusetts branch. She is a regional board member of the American Association for Teachers of French as well. Beckie is the author or co-author of numerous articles in professional publications and continuously undertakes courses at various universities to refine her skills.
Every year bar one since she was 15, Beckie has spent time in a Francophone country.
Fully bilingual, French and English. “I’ve also dabbled in Spanish.” And she can greet people in Djiula and Senefou.
“Growing up, languages were important to my family. My mother speaks French; my dad reads Latin, Greek and Italian. My older sister was great in German. So I chose French—mostly because of the food! I started studying it in high school and excelled at it; it came naturally to me. When I was 15, I went to France and loved it. The next summer I went back, speaking almost exclusively in French. I can do this, I told myself. At B.U., I quickly completed my minor in French. My dean said that if I loved French that much, I should teach it. And I do.”
Graphic designer, art director, creative director: these titles and a few more have been Carlos’s, who is currently the creative director of the Carlos Plaza Design Studio in Hollywood, Florida. He is a graduate of the Design Institute of Caracas and the former publisher and art director of that City’s Estilo Magazine. Carlos lived in a number of Latin American and European cities before landing in South Florida. He has put his artistic stamp on the collateral of many companies here—magazines and media groups, cruise ship lines, a high-end retailer. One of Carlos’s longest tenures has been with American Media (AMI) Specialty Publications, where he was both creative and art director.
Design is more than just a skill that Carlos excels at; it’s something he lives 24/7. While working his day jobs, for example, Carlos also spent seven years as the director of the Native Florida Gallery of art, which he founded. His affinity for the visual arts and in particular, for fine-arts photography (which he learned as a teenager from his father), is much of the reason for his sophisticated eye as a graphic designer.
Fully bilingual by the age of 17, Spanish and English. Fluent in Italian—“my mother tells me that I was completely fluent until I was about 7 years old, when my father moved me from an Italian high school in Venezuela to a Catholic one, where Spanish was the primary language and English the second.” Carlos also studied German during the four years he lived in Vienna.
“When I was hired as the design director of Boca Raton Magazine in 1994, I was at one of my first staff meetings and trying to settle an argument between sales and editorial. I told everybody that I wasn’t taking sides with one or the other—I was just being the devil’s avocado. Everybody broke up laughing. This was the last time I confused the English words of ‘avocado’ and ‘advocate,’ but it earned me a nickname among some of my close friends.”
Fernando’s life work began well before he graduated in 2008 from the Western Institute for Technology and Higher Education in his hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico, with a communications degree. By then he had already started a media observatory blog that monitored the agendas of print and electronic media; created TV segments for broadcast during the 2006 Germany World Cup; founded the first internet radio station at his university; and co-founded the NGO Ciudad para Todos (A City for All), which champions pedestrian-scale urban environments. Since then, he has collaborated with close to a dozen media outlets, become an award-winning storyteller, and is an ongoing contributor to NPR’s Latino USA.
In addition to producing and co-writing with Steve the America the Bilingual podcasts, Fernando has created a second storytelling podcast, Esto no es radio (“This isn’t radio”). He is also a contributor to KCRW, a Los Angeles radio station.
Fully bilingual since he was 16, Spanish and English. “The tipping point came when I enrolled in a bilingual high school, where all the subjects were taught in English.”
“In my parents’ library in Guadalajara, there was a box containing a self-guided course on how to learn English. I don’t think my parents ever opened it. How could they? My dad had to work in the mornings and study accounting in the afternoons. My mom had to do almost the same. At the end of the day, there was no bandwidth in them to learn another language. So their English got stuck at shopping level. When my parents came to visit me last year in California, I knew my dad wanted to practice his English. He’s now retired. He wants to go beyond shopping level: he wants to understand. So for the rest of his stay, I would have some conversations in English with him. He would beam every time he got his point across. I thought of him before the release of the first America the Bilingual podcast. He and Steve are both recovering monolinguals. They’re the same age. They could be friends, talking about music and the best dichos. Think of all the friendship possibilities that speaking in another language provides. It’s not the recipe for world peace. But it’s definitely one of the ingredients toward understanding one another. And with this bridge of sound called America the Bilingual, we’re going to do our part.”
Mim is the author of three books on the English language and three micro-biographies of John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt (both women were multilingual). She has published specialty books for the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the Folger Shakespeare Library and other leading cultural institutions that have included books in Spanish, Italian and Latin. She also edited and produced Steve’s first two books.
For the MacArthur Foundation, she was a principal designer of ¡Triunfo!, a multimedia fundraising gala for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Palm Beach County. In addition, she has developed a line of bilingual “brain games,” including Spanish-English crosswords, a 10-language dice game and a five-language set of children’s blocks. She has also been a guest blogger for the translation site Smartling.
Studied Latin for two years and French for four. To live the journey of America the Bilingual, she is learning Spanish.
“The year I lived in northern England, with its figgy-pudding-rich dialects, I spent the first couple months going to all sorts of places I never planned on. When the bus driver would ask did I want to go to X, Y and Z, loov, I would smile and say yes. I had no clue what he was saying. But it piqued a lifelong curiosity about languages. With my smattering of French and, more important, the Latin that had been drilled into me in school, I managed to muddle my way through much of western Europe and make some sense of the languages. Until, that is, I went to Cymru. Not one bit of Romance-language underpinnings helped me know that Mae’n dda gen i gwrdd â chi meant ‘Pleased to meet you.’ I was completely bethumped—but also beguiled by how utterly different the language was. For me, America the Bilingual is a chance to (hopefully) become conversant in another language. But it’s also a way to understand, even the tiniest bit, so many other languages and their cultures. Who knows all the wonderful places that being on the AB bus will take us? (Cymru, btw, is Wales.)
Rob Kennedy, Susan Erickson, Rick Griswold, Alejandro Capriles, Abraham Quilca, Andrew Higgins, Cecilia Constantine, Priya Suthar
Founded in 2013, Daruma Tech is headquartered in south Florida, the third largest Spanish-speaking area of the United States. The staff frequently works with clients who need to reach a multilingual audience, developing multi-language websites and mobile apps. Staff members manage the translation, localization and implementation of content. Staff members themselves speak a multitude of languages. “It creates an interesting multicultural environment where you are always learning something new about language, people and cultures,” says Susan. (The word daruma, by the way, is Japanese for a doll that is a traditional symbol of resilience.)
Both Alejandro and Abraham are native Spanish speakers with English as a second language. Cecilia has a working proficiency in Spanish and Korean. Rob has an elementary proficiency in French.
Rob: “I was able to use my student French when bicycling through France and French North Africa. Although my French was terrible, the French have a soft spot for bicyclists and were most gracious.”
Alejandro: “When I was 7, I came to the United States from Venezuela to attend a baseball camp in Boca Raton. I remember feeling really nervous because I couldn’t understand a word the other kids were saying. One day after training, the kids were begging the coaches to throw fly-balls at us that we would have to catch. We were competing and teasing each other (I still couldn’t speak English, but I guess they understood my excitement and body language). I remember they were all yelling, ‘One more! One more!’ and then the coaches would throw another fly-ball at them. After watching this for a few minutes, I understood what it meant, so I started asking for ‘One more!’ as well. That was the first time I was able to convey something I wanted to say in English. After spending about a month in that baseball camp, I learned a lot of basic words and sentences, and when I came back home, my English classes were easier. I also started watching TV shows in English all the time, and by the time I permanently moved to the States, I was fluent. Being able to speak a second language is one of the things I am most proud of.”
Abraham: “My family moved to the U.S. from Peru when I was 5. Luckily for me, this was still a time when I could learn a new language quickly. By the time I was in second grade, I knew English well enough to hold a conversation and read a book. For my siblings, however, it was a far different experience.
“My sister was 12 at the time, and my brother was 16. My sister struggled to learn English. Even though she took ESOL classes (English for Speakers of Other Languages), there were students from Russian countries and China as well as Latin America, so it was not as easy to learn English in that environment as she hoped.
“My brother also struggled, and this came at a pivotal time in his life, right in the middle of high school. He had to take some elective classes in English because they were not offered in his native language. This made it nearly impossible for him to pass those classes. He was even bullied because of his lack of English. His ESOL classes, however, were very helpful, since most students in that class did speak Spanish like him. Eventually, both of my siblings became fluent in English, but it showed me that people have very different experiences with learning a new language and adapting to a new country, based on their age.”
Cecilia: “I prepared intensely for my last trip to South Korea. I made a palm-sized phrase book and memorized some hangul to make sure I could fully immerse myself in Korean life. With a few of my Korean girlfriends and some expats, we roamed through night markets, stayed at guesthouses in popular college towns, and took the Seoul Metropolitan subway everywhere, trying our best to exercise our language chops at every opportunity. After I returned to the U.S., I found myself bowing and exclaiming ‘kamsamida’ (thank you) to every store clerk I encountered. It took me a full week of side glances and puzzled looks before I realized what I’d been doing.”