I studied French in high school and then again in college in order to meet the minimum academic requirement. I love the sound of French. It’s so, you know, French. Years later when we were shooting a documentary on Homeopathic Medicine in the south of France that classroom study came in handy. I was actually amazed at how quickly I was picking up vocabulary words. I could ask for the bill and the bathroom and appropriately use “please” and “thank you” and many more routine exchanges–as long as they remained routine. I kept thinking how great it would be to be able to be truly bilingual as so many of the French with whom I was working were. I was determined to try. I can do this! And so I returned home resigned to learn, really learn a language other than English. Spanish had my name written all over it.
So I began to study Spanish: in a class, then a computer-based program, with DVD’s in the car…you get it. Heck, I seemed to be getting it. I would be ready when we went to Guatemala to shoot a story on immigrant populations that were migrating to Delaware. As it turned out, I did as well speaking Spanish in Guatemala as I did speaking French in Lyon–mildly, very mildly, respectable for someone who had never had the benefit of being totally immersed in a language other than English. Nope, without total immersion and an opportunity to practice everyday, reaching fluency in a second language might be doable, but for most adults, a Herculean task. With all due respect to programs like Rosetta Stone, our brains are just not as wired to learn language as they are when we are young, and the younger the better. Several weeks ago we shot a story with little people here in Delaware who are already engaged in learning a second language in special dual language Kindergarten classrooms. This language study will continue as they progress through the grades toward the outcome of being fully bilingual by the time they graduate from High School. Wow, talk about workplace advantage!
Most of the people I know who are my age had grandparents and great grandparents who got off a boat in New York, or Boston or Philadelphia. In many cases they had little knowledge of the dominant language and culture in their new homeland. It was go-along, get-along, and the whole melting pot expectation. Not so anymore. Today, we are the world here, and more like the salad bowl metaphor where multiple cultures and languages are tossed together in a big bowl that is our ever-evolving democratic experiment. If you think xenophobia is still alive and well in factions of our great nation (and it is) Google some examples of political cartoons from 100+ years ago when newspapers leveled the information playing field for all who could read. Yes, there are our ancestors–the Irish, Italians, Germans and Poles–being likened to apes and thugs, etc. etc. creating panic in the hearts of respectable people who feared a hostile takeover by these less-than-human immigrant types. Of course African American citizens were habitually dehumanized. My, my–what a hundred+ years will do.
A new, multilingual America is coming on like natural childbirth. Hispanic Americans are now the fastest growing sector of our population. This shift will further shape American culture and usher in new opportunities for commerce. And guess who will be ready to dive right in? Of course the children who are now learning a new language from the time they set foot in school: Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and for some, English. English will likely remain the language of business and of course the dominant language here in the US. But I plan on hedging my bets by getting out my flashcards and tuning in to Univision when I can. Estás conmigo, amigos?