New Language: A First Step in Connection Outside of Your Culture

February 4, 2020
Christopher Davis in Atacama Chile

Today’s blog post comes to us from University of Arkansas Little Rock student and API alumni Christopher Davis. He recently returned from studying abroad with API in Valparaiso, Chile. He is blogging his journey in English and Spanish for us, so be sure to check out his Spanish posts here.

Well everyone, the time has come. My time in Chile is over.

It has left me with a lot of mixed emotions that I will explain in a soon coming blog entry, but for this entry I want to focus on another great interest of mine: learning languages. Specifically, I wanted to take the time to explain the value of language learning, which I’m sure many of my state-side peers have heard preached to them over and over and over again from high school days and likely before that.

Foreign Languages in the U.S.: Bait & Switch?

The push for learning languages is a complex undertaking in the United States because of conflicting forces between what is “good” and what is “practical”. On one hand, throughout a student’s life, he or she may be consistently advised on what will look “good” on a resume, and among these is learning a new language.

On the other hand, the interest (or sense of obligation) that logic may pique, often abuts against the arguably limited practical use of language studies outside of a classroom. Outside of school, students aren’t always faced with having to go to a world where they are expected to speak any of the foreign languages they’re learning. This reality may cause a student to mentally check out of a lesson which only pushes the advertised value of learning a foreign language farther away. 

As a slight tangent, even if these students were fully engaged in their language studies, I can’t help but wonder if they would fully understand their value.  The phrase “looks good on a resume” doesn’t offer much in terms of actually explaining what utility an applicant’s proficiency in another language has for a company. Even I had to learn how to articulate the relevance of learning Spanish in the context of applications and interviews.

If I could speculate, the value of an applicant having dominance to another language is that the company gets a nexus to a whole other client base without having to pay for an interpreter.  An applicant with mastery over “x” language would be able to communicate and connect with “y” people group. The problem is that even this benefit can be exaggerated. Sure, you as a student of language may know how to navigate grammatical structures and lexical items for dry communication, but true “connection” goes much further.  Connection in the context of business would require being able to draw upon shared experiences and social reference (i.e. cultural nuances) to signal identity and create a greater sense of solidarity with clients, colleagues and employers. Learning language in high school doesn’t necessarily equip a pupil with the cultural baggage that comes from really being immersed in a culture, but I digress.

Dubious Practicality of Learning Foreign Languages

The point is that, while there seems to be an ostensibly sound basis for learning another language, in the context of the United States (which is a largely English speaking country) it may be difficult to access the practical value of that knowledge.  Instead, students revert to the language that most of their peers know and that most of their social interactions, legal engagements, and economic transactions are conducted in: English.

The matter of the practicality of learning a foreign language is further cast into doubt with the understanding that English is the global language.  This means that whatever “connection” an applicant may want to advertise themselves as having to “y” people group by knowing “x” language may become moot if there are a sufficient number of clients from “y” people group that speak English.  And, from my little time in Chile, my understanding is that, those with the privilege to learn English do learn it. 

This begs a simple question to the institutions that promote the value of learning foreign languages: is there really a point? Side Note: As a person who also studies the “dead language” Latin (a Latinist or Quirīs if you prefer), this question is infuriating.

Life Lived in Spanish

At any rate, my time in Chile leaves me feeling that I can provide an answer to this question, and fortunately, I believe the answer is yes. A brief survey of how non-English language use played into my study abroad experience can serve this point well.

In my initial orientation period, many of the tutors and professors who I encountered when I arrived in Chile did have a competent command of English.  So at any point (though I rarely rarely did) I could revert to English if I really wanted to. All the same, the official language of the university I attended, la Universidad Tecnica Federico Santa Maria, is Spanish – meaning that even to progress in the courses I signed up for I had to listen to, speak, and read Spanish.

A Pillar in my Relationships Abroad

More importantly, however, most of my social interaction was not around professors or teachers.  It was around Chileans and other Spanish speakers. A handful knew English, but largely in order to really be fully engaged in conversation, to understand jokes, to be on board with plans, to even engage in casual or contemplative conversation, I had to use Spanish. That means that Spanish was integral to forging many of the connections that I made. I could (sometimes) use English, but this is where we have to remember a simple but valuable lesson: in Latin America, English is not the norm.

This adage is thrown around a lot, but it was a lesson that actually set in a few years into my study of Spanish. I remember when I first started watching TV in Spanish in the states and saw a Pepsi commercial on Univision. That’s when I realized that, at a certain level, it was surprising to me that a whole world, a whole group of functioning societies, existed outside of the Anglosphere (the English speaking world).

That lesson came flying back in my face time and time again in Chile – the world was not cast in English at all.  The news, street signs, billboards, ads, everything was in Spanish in service of a people who lived and spoke Spanish.  A fully competent people, fully participating in the modern world, and yet who simply did not use English to communicate amongst themselves.

What all of that means, is that when navigating a Spanish speaking world, it shouldn’t be surprising that forging real intimate connection with the people will require the use of Spanish.  Whatever the competence of English they may have, it doesn’t take away from the fact that they go their lives not having to use English and are much more comfortable expressing themselves in Spanish because it’s the language most of their social interactions, legal engagements, and economic transactions are conducted in.

Moreover, not everyone has the luxury to spend time learning English because there are issues that do take far greater precedence. That is the case with Chile right now where political unrest to change decades long inequalities likely seems a bit more important than finding ways of being more intelligible to English-speakers.

A Starting Point to see Others More Clearly

The value of learning a foreign language, from what I’ve found, isn’t through being a more competitive applicant.  It’s about being able to more effectively communicate with a completely different group of people who exist outside of one’s own lingual microcosm. This is distinct from being able to advertise some vague ability of being able to “connect” with some hypothetical business clients or colleagues or bosses who may not know English or speak it natively. Five and a half months later, I still haven’t gained full command over expressing myself with enough cultural nuance to read as Chilean or, even more broadly, Latin.  Whatever “solidarity” I could create with even a hypothetical Spanish-speaking client would depend largely on the specific cultural background of that individual.

What I have gained is practice in being willing to understand a group of people on lingual terms that are not my own.  Using the privilege I have to learn a different language to deferring to their linguistic mastery instead of my own. Does that mean I grasped all of the beautiful colors of the people I interacted with because I knew Spanish, no–I am still learning.  What it does mean is that I am not requiring the people I’m talking to to submit to the obligatory status of English for my benefit. I’m at least trying to go along with their flow of conversation.  And as an English speaker from the United States, that is already appreciated because we are anticipated to not want to learn how non-English speaking people express themselves.

Furthermore, by practicing Spanish I am exercising the linguistic skills that over time will allow me to enter intimate spaces with them that I may not be able to go precisely because of a language barrier.  In short, the fact that I am learning a different language gives me the ability to have access to the deeper parts of people who exist outside the confines of the “anglosphere”, and though that connection comes the benefit of friendship where I want to be of service to these people, to the friends I’ve made, and where they provide opportunities for me to learn about myself.

The potential for an economic benefit is a tangential benefit that, at least from my reckoning, can only really be sustained if there also exists a real sense of value for the person or people you’re establish a business relationship with.  That value allows the relationship to be conducted with respect even if you are offering services and products to help people who may be socially deficient.

PSA: Try to Find a Language to Learn

This point of respect resonates for me as a student of Computer Science who had to do a little research on the growing concerns of the security of Latin America’s critical infrastructure from the lens of cyber security.  Latin America is caught in a kind of political game of chess between super powers, including the United States. My concern is that the same sort of intrusive and, frankly, arrogant handling we have historically subjected the countries in Latin America will only persist if there are not concrete efforts on all of our parts to establish a relationship with members of these communities rather than situating ourselves as patrons to them in the realm of computer science.

My encouragement to members of the EIT department of my university and, more broadly to members of my field, who may not have considered learning a different language to actually take steps to engage members of communities who don’t speak English. Allow your affections to be stirred beyond just business relationships and take the lessons from those relationships to inform our business practices.  And for those of you who are at my university and reading this, look me up and reach out if you ever want to actually practice or want recommendations on resources. I’m a language nerd–this is in my element.

Conclusion: Remember language is for Connection

In summary, I would argue some of the more rich value of learning language is masked because language skills are usually advertised as a tool for self-promotion in economic pursuits. For some of my readers it may be the case that you are wrapped tight in an English-speaking (an obstacle unto itself in terms of language study) and subjected to the prophecies of all the citizens of this planet eventually coming to adopt your mother tongue of English.  Whatever projections we may try to contrive as to the dominance of English, we can’t assume that the pressure to learn English has yet to translate into an evenly spread push to master the language the world over–and that isn’t a demerit on the part of non-English speaking people.

Rather, this asymmetrical mastery simply means significant groups of people have a different language in which the more personal aspects of their being are cast.  Their asymmetrical knowledge is not a stigma but a mark of who they are, and the benefit of knowing a different language is the potential of being to establish meaningful connections with those who are removed from our own cultural context.

That is not to say learning a different language promises perfect relationships and endless laughs and good times, but it does provide an opportunity to learn more deeply about the cultural infrastructure that informs our own sense of self in a very personal way and the opportunity to develop the desire to want to help a fellow human being.  It is that desire to connect, that exercise in respect, however imperfectly you yourself may operate in it, that will give you access to communities outside of your own (even if you aren’t necessarily a native), and perhaps that can be a skill translatable to a resume, but that should not be your primary goal starting out (you may find yourself frustrated by how far you are from being “in” those groups). 

The goal of learning a language is connection by first listening and then expressing yourself the best way you can on someone else’s lingual terms: There’s plenty benefit to be gathered from just that.

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