Do We Understand Each Other?


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Do We Understand Each Other

This fall I’ve had the privilege of traveling in Spain, France, the Netherlands and China, visiting our international programs. Spending time with students in these settings was especially helpful to me as I consider the future of global experiential learning. It’s an odd term but one that has helped me to see beyond the boundaries of a single program or activity, and envision what it means to embrace global citizenship. Students seem to understand this better than the rest of us, as they have enough curiosity and courage to explore.

One of the areas I have been most fascinated with is language. My years of studying German and Greek are a great distance in the rearview mirror, and useful only in remembering a few words, phrases and ideas. Yet I am fascinated with the ways in which language is reshaping the way we experience the world today. As isolation continues to fade with technology, telecommunication and social networking, it’s easy to assume the need for language ability also is fading.

Thomas Friedman, in his famous book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century (2005), described global interactions facilitated by technology, particularly in the arena of commerce. We often refer to the world as “getting smaller,” but the notion of it becoming flatter introduced a new way of thinking. His concept of “globalizing the local” is especially helpful. This occurs when any individual can take something of a local interest or concern and “upload” it onto the Internet to make it globally available. We have been taught the perspectives of a few can become the cause of many, overcoming the dominance of one. The Arab Spring we recently witnessed on the global stage is an important and interesting example of this phenomenon.

I take Friedman’s point in many respects, but I’m wondering if we also are seeing a related pattern as many are localizing the global through a broader knowledge of language, culture, history and tradition. Global experience influences the ways we interpret our world right where we are. Again, foreign language learning offers some helpful insights. There is a perception present among some in the United States that language ability is not really needed to be an effective global citizen. In part, this is attributed to the spread of American/Western culture, since you can get by with English in many parts of the world. The predominance of English in international business and web technologies has fueled this further. The reality is many citizens of other countries find it desirable, if not necessary, to learn English. Does that let us, in the English-speaking world, off the hook?

Since 1958, the Modern Language Association (MLA) has conducted occasional surveys to determine the number of course enrollments in languages among undergraduate programs in higher education in the United States.* The table below presents selected languages and years of this study since 1980.

2009 1998 1990 1980
Arabic 35,083 5,505 3,683 3,471
Chinese 62,953 28,493 19,510 11,405
French 216,419 199,064 273,143 248,307
German 96,349 89,020 133,594 127,015
Italian 80,752 49,287 49,843 34,796
Japanese 73,434 43,141 45,830 11,516
Portuguese 11,371 6,926 6,118 4,894
Russian 26,883 23,791 44,476 23,987
Spanish 864,986 656,445 534,182 378,960
Totals 1,468,230 1,101,672 1,110,379 844,351

The patterns are interesting to explore. The most interesting and relevant trend, however, is that foreign language enrollments, in general, have increased substantially over the past decade and more. This represents an overall increase of 74 percent in enrollments among these languages over the past 30 years. This change certainly reflects some general increase in student enrollments in higher education, but it’s not sufficient to explain the entire trend by itself. The bottom line is more students are enrolling in language programs, either by choice or expectation.

These data reinforce my very limited observations this fall. In China, the students we spoke with were each working in their third or fourth language. The students we met with in Europe were eager learners and not interested in dabbling. They want to be fluent. Some were moving to very advanced levels, some pursuing a foreign language as a novice. More importantly, I found these students to be very playful with language. They seem to relish the connections of various languages and the related nuances of language and culture. As language continues to evolve and words and phrases are adopted from one language into another, this flat world is producing more need for language competency, not less.

There are days when I would simply wish for our high school and college students to speak and write well in English. While that remains an important goal, their futures in an emerging global society will depend, in part, on their skill and sensitivity to international language and culture. The success of our nation is globally intertwined with the success of others. Our students can show us the way as they explore the world. They will have the opportunity to ask one of the more important questions in our future: Do we understand each other?

*The Modern Language Association website provides public searchable access to the studies from 1958-2009 and a detailed description of the methodology for the data collection.

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13 responses to “Do We Understand Each Other?”

  1. David Purnell says:

    I am thankful for Mark’s observation that the widespread use of English in the world today may seem to let native speakers thereof “off the hook,” in terms of struggling to acquire a second language, because it casts a light on a misconception with very serious ramifications. What this global phenomenon of English domination really means, with more people in the world today speaking English as a second language than as their first, is that all those people have an additional world-view and set of subtly different interpretations, and nuanced reactions and approaches, giving them an added depth of perception, akin to nothing less than the relationship between binocular and monocular vision. To gain this “second sight” (which most Americans still sadly lack), a person must go beyond merely learning “about” a language. Most of us have come to understand something about the basic building blocks of particular foreign languages, and the rules that govern their manipulation into words and sentences, through explicit classroom instruction. The difference between this and “global experiential” education is that the latter can only happen when seekers experience meaningful interaction with those people who possess a different world-view and, more often than not, this requires the ability to actually communicate in their language.

  2. George Brown says:

    I think that “understanding” comes from experiencing the culture that has grown with the language. I studied French in high school and for two years at Central. I haven’t had the opportunity to
    use the language other than what I experienced in class and at a dinner at the French House. I do not really have much of an idea of the French culture even though I have some friends from France. When I went to Yucatan in 1969, I had only studied Spanish for 10 weeks. I immersed myself in the culture though always carrying my English-Spanish dictionary. What an eye-opening experience! It shattered the biases that I had learned from my culture. I have been a different person since that time. I met people in Muni,Uci,Merida,Muna and other communities in Yucatan who were native Maya speakers that had varying levels of proficiency in Spanish and even were trying to speak to me in English. I felt as if I was somewhat deficient since I only used one language. Understanding another’s language does help give me a different view into how that person uses a slightly different thought process because of the structure of their language. But using another language than my native language has helped inform me about that other culture when I visit a home and engage the family in discussions about politics,and other topics.
    I was able to return to Merida and live there for one year. I do not claim any facility in Spanish, but I can communicate at a rudimentary level. My experiences in Yucatan changed how I view my country and the world at large. Do I “understand” Yucatecans or any other individual? I think that is a function of how well I am able to get past my own mind’s desire to shape my world instead of being able to hear and observe the actual person free of my mind’s preconceptions.

  3. Ruby says:

    It is interesting to travel to India and Nepal where many people do speak English. But they speak a local variety of English among themselves which has a different cadence and set of metaphors than the English we speak in the U.S. and the UK. I’ve noticed that Africans speak yet other versions of English. These speakers can code switch to standard (though accented) English, but in their own communities they have made the language their own. It’s an interesting process.

    For a really unique experience, take a stab at a non-Indo European language. You will feel your mind strain in a way it never did for French or German. But at the same time, it’s still a language. It’s fun to catch onto the figures of speech and little twists that form the patterns. Adult learners may find it difficult to shake an accent. But we can still gain fluency if we’re not afraid to sound like little kids again for a while. Or should I say, if we push past that fear. Language is in our very DNA.

  4. Erik Ladner says:

    Speaking as both a Spanish professor and as the president of the Iowa World Language Association, I thank you Mark for sharing your observations with the Central College community. In an era when K-12 world language programs have suffered as a result of budget cuts, I greatly appreciate your arguments for the continuation and expansion of the role of language in the curriculum. In suppport of the role of world languages in our education system it is important that voices such as yours are heard not only by our local community but also by our state leaders. Although we in academia, as well as many in Iowa’s business community, clearly see the inherent advantages of the ability to communicate across linguistic and cultural lines, this is an argument that many in local and state government also need to hear. This said, I encourage you to share these thoughts with our local and state leaders when opportunities present themselves. This is a message that is at times lost when issues related to world languages come before school boards, the Iowa DOE and our legislators. Voices such as yours have the weight to motivate change, and I hope that you will consider taking this argument to our elected officials in order to further support world language education.

    Again, I thank you for your wonderful words!

  5. Andy Thompson says:

    As a Spanish and political science major at Central, I had a wonderful experience, living in the “International House” in its inaugural year, spending a year in Spain, completing an internship my senior year with a Mexican governor in Toluca. I gained a great level of comfort with the language that persists today. But immersion in a language and culture is essential to a successful attempt at fluency.

    I have used my Spanish wherever I’ve worked, in Washington, DC, as a translator for our municipal court in Ohio, in selling ads to Latin American tour companies. My wife says I still use the subjunctive impeccably in my sleep!

    I do think that some people are more “wired” for language than others. Just as some are mathematically-inclined. Language seems to be a right-brained endeavor. But we should continue to strive to be lifelong learners, and language study will keep our minds razor sharp.

  6. All spot on. I would have to say from personal experience, and what I have seen in others, that the greatest benefit of learning a foreign language is not the nouns and verbs or even the ability to converse with people from another culture. It is the ability it gives you to see the world from a different perspective. You cannot learn a language (well) without climbing inside the head of another culture, understanding its history, its worldview. And that broadening of perspective is, well… priceless.

    [1981-1982 Wales alum, during which time I was bitten by the Russian bug. I have been dealing with the infection for the past 30 years…]

  7. Don Huffman says:

    These are excellent observations regarding language and cross-cultural understanding. My initial language learning as requirements of reading knowledge in French and German for a PhD were superb examples of the type of sterile language which does little to enable one to “enter another culture.”
    Fortunately, my later attempts to learn language while living within another culture, though more limited than I’d have preferred, have been much better in helping to understand and enter other cultures. I doubt that one can ever fully appreciate one’s own culture without having experienced language embedded in another culture-at least at a beginning, functional level.
    Students such as those who are fortunate enough to study in Central’s Study Abroad programs often are unaware of the excellent opportunities for personal growth by immersing themselve in another language and culture. There are opportunities for both practical and intellectual growth inherent in these programs which one must experience to fully appreciate.

  8. Everyday I work and conjole to challenge native English speakers to be better at their language skills–both writing and speaking–so their future can be improved. The other day I got laughed at and was told “I’ll have a secretary for that.”

    As an English instructor at a community college, I “fight the good fight” every day; and only occasionally win with my students the battle of getting them outside the box of their little world to see the big one, where their writing and speaking skills may make a difference.

    My soap box had beeen helped because of my time on the London Studies Program and that many of my students are from foreign countries, so we can have a balanced discussion and “look” at the world.

    However, I also fight for students to dabble in Spanish (our only foriegn language offering). It is like moving mountains! I live in a culture part of Iowa where the growing population is native hispanic speakers, but most students I encounter feel affronted by the very thought of learning someone else’s language. They often don’t see themselves anywhere beyond the county line(s). I try to remind them that one of the ways to improve their marketablity is with a foreign language.
    I can’t say I’ve been very successful in convincing anyone, but education majors (thank god).

    Mark, please continue to support foriegn language and study abroad. It has helped me in more ways that I can even count; I am a different person for it. If I can help others through my experience, it is likely the message can be continued and all benefit from it.

  9. Language is a complex and incredible subject to study, full of frustration and rewards. I graduated from Central in May, with a major in Spanish and having studied abroad in Mexico. After graduating, I began a whole new language experience-through the Peace Corps. I am struggling to use and understand my first African language, Setswana. And as a Volunteer in South Africa, which has 11 official languages, I am constantly being bombarded with one new language after another.

    Even so, I am placed in a country where English is the language used at all schools, and anyone wishing to go to University must have a superior understand of my moth tongue. Many volunteers find themselves conversing solely in English throughout their service, and see no need to learn their target language. I was initially frustrated because I thought I would not have the opportunity to learn and use Setswana. However, upon arrival to my deep-rural village, I quickly realized that learning Setswana would be a matter of survival in an area where few people know enough English to speak.

    Learning the language of the Tswana people has opened my eyes to parts of their culture in a way that an English speaker would not be able to understand. And being a white person in post-Apartheid South Africa who is learning the tongue of a black people-the Tswana-and not Afrikaans, sends a powerful message to those living in my informally-segregated area. Language can unite people in a unique way, and I am able to experience that on an intimate level.

    As Nelson Mandela once said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, it goes to his heart.” I see this often when a child hears me resort to Setswana in class, or when I see the joy in a stranger’s face after greeting him on the street, in his language.

    English may be a powerful language in our world, but it is not the only language. And if we seek to learn new languages, we may indeed discover gems from a different culture.

  10. Ed Ver Hoef says:

    I am torn over the matter of learning a foreign language. I had two years of German in high school and two more at Central. In both cases, I became somewhat comfortable in using the language in class, both in written and verbal form. However, unless this usage is continued, the ability rapidly declines. Although some sort of immersion imbeds the language in one’s brain better than just institutional learning, I’m sure the proficiency starts to decline as soon as the immersion ends. Continual usage is essential; as soon as usage diminishes, so does competency. At my current age (88) much of my memory losses are age related, I am even much more certain that they are the result of lack of usage. My parents and grandparents all spoke Dutch as well as English although my parents were born in the US. However, neither my brother nor I ever became proficient in the language.

  11. Tim Bosch says:

    Language, global citezenship, experiential learning, and how it may or may not pertain to each of us are interesting and complex issues. When we are immersed enviroments that are foreign to us we automatically become more engaged in order to gain a better understanding of our new enviroment. Language is not a linear utterance of sylabols or written words, it’s spoken with gestures and expressions that often go unnoticed when we speak to others of a familiar dialect. When we talk with someone of forien dialect we automatically become more engaged as we struggle to understand and be understood.
    In much of our daily conversation we can get by on auto pilot, just like a familiar drive to work, your mind drifts disengaged until something new or unexpected jumps in front of us. When we fully engage interesting things happen, we learn about the people that we are speaking with, where they are from, what they are like, what we do and do not have in common, ultimately we think about them and ourselves in a different context.
    The aquisiton of these skills applies to all of us in different ways, whether it’s fitting into a new job or finding our way in a forign country, learning to find commonalites ultimately helps undue biases and quell the fear of the unknown.
    During a year long stay in Japan I had the privlege of living with Japanese troops. Although I did not speak Japanese we found ways to communicate, to tell each other about our famlies our hopes and expectations and became good friends. Upon reflection I was saddened that my Grandparents generation could not have done the same.

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  13. Meg says:

    I have noticed when traveling to other countries the bond made when one tries the native language is much stronger than when people are not willing to comprimise at all. In Japan my Japanes was awful but my host family was so greatful that I would take the opportunity to try and make myself vunerable at the same time. I also studied in Wales and one of my closest mates was a Welsh speaker, I tried my hardest to pick up on the language and I was reinforced by natives appreciating my effort. I also speak Spanish and I have had several chances to use this as well. When people take the effort to speak your antive language there is a respect earned and understanding acheived. I think in terms of Central’s responsibility it would be extremely beneficial for the students to have an Arabic class and more Chinese classes based upon world numbers of people who speak these languages.