Culture Magazine

A Unilingual World - A Counterpoint

By Conroy @conroyandtheman
I have personally struggled with the issue that Conroy discusses in his most recent post, trying to decide whether to make the tremendous (for me) effort to learn Spanish as a second language. Most of the people in my office speak Spanish (I work in South Florida); for some of them, it is their first language. We have had clients who speak only Spanish, and I've had to have a translator help me communicate with them. Clearly, I would be better off bilingual. But I'm not bilingual, and learning a second language at my age (I'm in my 30s) is no easy task. Plus, the time I spend learning basic Spanish skills is time I could spend learning more about the law, which includes a rich specialized vocabulary all of its own. I have also found that most of my bilingual colleagues come to me for advice about the English language, and they don't care that I don't speak Spanish (or even attempt to). They are much more eager to learn my language rather than teach me theirs.
So even though I agree with Conroy that it would be great to know a second a language (or a third, or fourth), I've decided to maintain focus on my primary occupation for now. Of course, things might change. My wife speaks some Spanish and is thinking about learning more after she finishes her MBA. If she decides to study Spanish, that may tip the scale for me. It would be considerably more fun and less stressful to learn another language together with a partner. That's how I've addressed the question for myself. But I would also encourage others to focus on improving their English skills as opposed to studying a foreign language. For one thing, I believe we should strive for a universal language, and learning multiple languages does not promote that end. Don't get me wrong. I am in favor of diversity in language. But as we can see from English, or any other particular language examined closely, one language alone can be incredibly rich and diverse.
In fact, one of the main reasons English is so rich and diverse is that it has assimilated so many other languages. I'm strongly in favor of that. So spice up your writing with a foreign phrase now and then. Take what is best from other languages—the most vivid, the most useful words and expressions. There is plenty to learn. This past weekend, for instance, I learned that Kurt Gödel was known as Herr Warum ("Mr. Why") because of his unquenchable curiosity. Today, I learned that Justice Brandeis used to refer to FDR's policies as Kunststucke ("clever tricks"). I also learned that the term "shyster," often falsely attributed to the character Shylock from Shakespeare, actually has its origins in the German word scheisse (look it up), a word worth knowing. (Read Michael Lewis's recent article, "It’s the Economy, Dummkopf!" for a strange, scatological analysis of this and other German words.) 
These are all great foreign words, and I'm happy to have learned them. But individual words or phrases is far different from learning an entire language. It is much easier, and more fun, and, I would argue, more beneficial to the English language. And it gives you a broader sampling of all the interesting languages out there. So go out there and take the most interesting words from German, take them from Spanish, from French, and Yiddish, and Russian, and even Mandarin (if that's possible). Don't spend your time trying to gain fluency. Instead, mine these languages for their most vivid words and phrases—and steal them!—enrich the English language with them! Just as you, Conroy, have enriched this blog by teaching us the French phrase mot juste.
As for teaching children foreign languages, I think there's an argument for that. It's debatable, though. Being bilingual has certain advantages. But it may also have disadvantages; you can't be an expert in everything. This problem is even more pronounced with adults. Why spend precious time grappling with a foreign language, only to gain a halting grasp of it, when you could be using that time improving your English? The fact is most adults simply will not be able to gain fluency in a foreign language no matter how hard they try. However, they probably can make small but important improvements to their English, which will be more likely to help them with their careers—these days it pays to know English as well as you can know it—and in doing so they will help keep the English language strong.
That said, Conroy, if you still want to study a foreign language, I'm supportive of that. If anyone has the willpower to become a polyglot as an adult, it's you. An interesting and neglected book on the subject that you might find interesting is called "Language Made Plain" by Anthony Burgess. It's chock full of interesting ideas, including techniques on how to learn a foreign language. He also wrote a follow-up book called "A Mouthful of Air," which I haven't read and can't vouch for, but I'm sure it's worth looking into. And if any of our readers have other suggestions for learning a language, particularly books on the subject, please let us know.

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