When I was middle school age, I decided that I would learn to speak Russian. I thought their symbols were intriguing and liked the ruggedness of the language. Checked out a book from the library and spent 15-20 minutes of intensive study before setting the book aside. Did I learn Russian? Nyet.
In high school, I took two years of Spanish. Spent more time sitting by the window pointing out cars to my color-blind friend to see if he could guess their color, than practicing the language. If you need to count to ten in Spanish, I’m your man.
When I went to Ghana as an exchange student between my junior and senior years of high school, my “brother” Alvin was the same age and spoke five languages – English, French, and three local languages. There are regional languages spoken in Ghana and many different dialects within the regions. Even small children know multiple languages. Alvin went to Hungary to complete pharmacy school, and had to learn Hungarian to begin taking classes. William, our student from Haiti, had to learn Spanish to start medical school in the Dominican Republic. I’m so impressed by these two.
Now that I’ve been to Haiti ten or so times, I’m able to understand and speak some Haitian Creole, but don’t use it often enough to be fluent. It is common for Haitians to know Creole, French, and English. Returning home from a trip to other countries it sometimes seems strange to hear others speaking English.
I find languages fascinating. The tonal sounds of Asian languages, the harshness of Germanic dialects, the passionate Italian, Spanish, and Creole speakers, and many I don’t know the origins. It’s amazing how much you can communicate, even when you don’t understand the language.
Part of it is geography, part of it is arrogance, but I’m astonished how few people in the U.S. are not fluent in another language, including myself. But it’s changing, isn’t it? Embrace the marvelous variety of ways to say words in this world.