Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Linguistic Blessings and Duties

It used to make me feel bad that, when traveling, I can count on the people I encounter to speak English, and generally have no need to learn their language. This expectation seemed unfair at best and imperialist at worst. It was conducive to linguistic laziness, as well as a failure to immerse myself in the culture I had come to observe and experience. It just seemed wrong to come to someone’s country and expect them to speak your language.

Lately, however, I’ve been seeing things differently. Ever since the fall of the Tower of Babel, the world has needed a common language to facilitate interlingual communication. Phoenecian was the first lingua franca, followed by Greek, Latin, French, and, for most of the past two centuries, English.

As a native speaker of this versatile language, I should view my ability to communicate virtually anywhere as a privilege, not a crutch or an embarrassment. This, however, in no way excuses me from learning, at the very least, a few words and phrases in the language of the people with whom I’m speaking. Such a token effort is quickly rewarded with appreciative smiles and more amicable relations with the locals. Furthermore, and it hardly needs mentioning, the deeper one delves into a given language, the better one will come to understand the culture it represents.

Those of us fortunate enough to speak fluent, native English should be encouraged to use this gift for the benefit of our extra-lingual friends—by teaching new immigrants or going abroad to teach others—and consider it a motivation, not a deterrent, to learn additional languages ourselves.

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