Tuesday, January 22, 2008

On being an American

When I was in Costa Rica recently, I realized how “un-American” it was not to know Spanish. Of course, many in the United States consider it “un-American” for immigrants (legal or illegal) not to know English.

The problem cuts both ways.

If we are ever to realize fully what it means to be an “American,” we should all be bi-lingual. (I’ll leave out Portuguese, though I probably shouldn’t. Let’s take one language at a time.)

How different the “immigration problem” would look if we spoke the same languages. To be bi-lingual would expand our identities in the ways that European identity has changed in the last 15 years. Europeans typically know two or three or more languages.

Of course when you learn another language, you also learn another culture and have a fuller understanding of your own humanity, and humanity in general.

The metaphor “language barrier” seems entirely apt. How many times in Costa Rica did I hit that barrier? When we don’t know the language of the person next to us, we each become the “other,” the “alien,” the “unfathomable.” Too often we fill in the blanks with speculation, at best, and prejudice, at worst.

My reaction to not being able to communicate, to not preparing myself to communicate by learning Spanish, goes beyond a sense of ignorance to shame. Who, after all, has had the greater opportunity to learn the other’s language, me or the person on the other side of the language barrier?

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