“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page”
Saint Augustine of Hippo, (354-430 A.D.)
The following is a personal reflection on the benefits of learning a second or third language which I dedicate, with gratitude, to the hundreds of students I have had -- and from whom I have learned so much. This reflection is a tad philosophical -- I hope not too much so-- but my hope is that it may inspire at least one young person to persevere in language studies, and not get discouraged by the phrasal verbs, the gerund- infinitive choices, phonetic challenges, etc. Reader, I want to encourage you to always be open to the tremendous possibilities that learning a second or third language gives you. Of course, there are the obvious: a better career, a higher income, or a visa approval. If you would forgive me some reminiscing, my past could be a case in point.
From age 8-18 I studied French, and loved it. Frankly, I didn’t see learning French as a means to an end --- I simply enjoyed it. When I was 13 or 14, I used to attach a 30 meter antenna wire to my radio, hang it out the 2nd story window at night, and from Baltimore I could get a French radio station from Montreal, Canada -- about 550 miles away. During the day the sun’s radiation interfered with the radio waves. I am 60, so, of course, there was no internet to help with language learning. As a boy, I’d write a letter on paper and mail it to the daughter of a family friend in France, and wait a few weeks for it to arrive. Then it would be a few more weeks for a response to come back.
I never imagined that years later French would allow me to speak with the people in Port-au-Prince, or Gonaives, Haiti. I could never foresee how knowing French, and learning some basic Kreyol would change my life forever. A couple years later, I decided to finish college and added Spanish to Biology as majors [I know, odd combo-- too long a story]
Fast forward a couple years to October 23, 1993, and again I find myself in Cite Soleil, Port-au-Prince, Haiti with a camera trying to document the reality on the ground. It wasn’t the safest time; there had been a coup and President Aristide had fled. [you can google it, if you really want to know more]. Two attaches, paramilitary guys, came up to me and starting questioning me, one carrying a shotgun. The British, French, and American warships were blockading the nation, and we could see them about 10 miles offshore. When “Fredy” asked me a few questions about my opinion of Aristide, his tone was a bit hostile. But we were speaking in French, and by that time my Spanish was better than my French. I must have hesitated while searching for the correct French word, so he asked me, “Hablas español?” It turns out his wife was from the Dominican Republic next door, so he had learned Spanish. By the end of the conversation, he seemed satisfied I wasn’t a spy or military, and even offered to protect me as I took pictures. I will never know, but it’s altogether possible that majoring in Spanish might have saved my life that afternoon [and yes, of course, I was scared]. I admit the example is a bit dramatic, but you never know when studying a second or third language might come in handy.
One other example: I met my Venezuelan wife 14 years ago, and she spoke English, but at her level she said my English was too fast for her -- so we went to Spanish. I had learned it in Spain, with different expressions, and a different accent than the Spanish my wife had learned. So even after 14 years together my Spanish is still a “work in progress,” and that’s OK. For almost 7 years we have been living in San Diego, Venezuela.
In short, the countless trips to Haiti over the years --- the immeasurable inspiration those brave people gave me, -- the joy of getting to share my life with the most selfless woman I’ve ever met -- all of this-- just because I “enjoyed languages”, worked hard, and was patient. So, young reader, if you don’t mind some unsolicited advice from an old guy in South America-- enjoy the journey. Of course, make plans, have goals-- but be open to surprises and possibilities that may come your way just because you persevered in learning a second, third, or even fourth language. Don’t ever let the phrasal verbs or idioms or anything else get you down. Persevere; don’t give up. Never let fear or discouragement keep you from a path that might just bring you more joy than you ever expected. Yes, there is a lot of hard work in learning another language, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and the benefits may be more than you ever dreamed of. They have been for me. I wish you all the best in whatever language or languages you are studying, and again, as always, many thanks to my students who allow me to do what I truly love doing for a living! Cheers.