I’ve been thinking a lot about language learning lately. To what degree is being limited only to one’s native language a barrier/handicap to international travel and to international/cross-cultural understanding? (Less than I thought.) Is there value in attempting to master another language? (Absolutely but there are constraints of time and pragmatics.) How good are extant software translation programs? (The applications are getting better and better but don’t believe all that is promised unless you—and the person you are communicating to—have a good sense of humor). Obviously the answers to these questions are not as simple as my parenthetical replies imply. However, I’ve been thinking deeply about these issues this semester as I’ve widened the horizons of my students and of me through creating a pilot virtual cultural immersion course. My thinking has been especially stimulated by the fascinating work of Ms. Irma Milevičiūtė and her International PenPals Club project in Lithuania.
I’ve travelled abroad three times and clearly am overdue to travel abroad again. While attending Howland High School in Ohio I traveled with the Spanish Club to Portugal and southern Spain. It was a whirlwind, two-week “tourist-oriented tour” with very little interaction with native speakers (Qué lastima!). At Oberlin College I experimented with different majors of study (English, then Communications, then Spanish, ultimately psychology—ah, the joys of a liberal arts education). While an undergraduate there I lived for a summer in Mexico studying at the University of Guanajuato. All my classes taken there (e.g. “Spanish Golden Age Theater”, “History of Mexico”) were taught in Spanish by natives, and I lived in a boarding house where no one spoke English (though I had an American roommate and a number of American classmates from several other colleges and universities). During my third year of graduate studies at The Ohio State University where I was pursuing Masters and PhD degrees in Experimental Social Psychology I joined my graduate school adviser, Tom Ostrom, who was a distinguished visiting professor at the University of Bergen, Norway for 6 months of research and study. Though I took a language course there (Norwegian for Foreigners)—and proudly possess a certificate for attempting to master the language, all my daily interactions were with English-speaking Norwegian faculty and students. The 6 months of study and travel there resulted in friendships which remain today, a much deeper appreciation of another culture, and a humbling of what I what I knew.
Unfortunately as a youth I almost had my interest in learning another language destroyed by the results of a misinterpreted psychological test. I recall being devastated by the experience of being told that I had “failed” a foreign language aptitude test. The “failure” probably was one factor motivating me to attempt to learn foreign languages in High School and eventually, to studying psychology (to better understand why children succeed or fail and the effects of labels on performance). In high school I took two years of Latin (thank you, Mrs Bode—Gratias tibi ago!) culminating with obtaining the highest score in the State of Ohio on a standardized test. Though, alas, I was not nominated for Pope nor have I yet traveled via Time Machine— the discipline of learning Latin and about the Roman culture was enriching and rewarding. It no doubt facilitated my two years of study of Spanish culminating in my achieving the highest score in the State of Ohio in that language. In both cases, though, it was a combination of excellent teachers, a supportive academic environment, an opportunity to learn about the culture and its literature, music, art, theater, politics, history, customs, and its cuisine that was vital to my learning. No doubt other factors contributing to my success were supportive parents, friendly competition with my Howland High school peers and my Big Sister, Connie Sue!
Good luck Beatrice, Kristijonas, Meda and Davidas in the international English language Amberstar competition whose results are due any day now. Thank you Katerina (from Kurgan), Hersonia (from Mexico), Reidar (from Norway), and especially Irma (from Lithuania) for your many acts of kindness, good humor, and inexhaustible patience with this curious professor as he attempts to become more globally educated and aware. Research shows that bilingualism has so many advantages over the pragmatic. I am indebted to you for the lessons learned and I admire, respect, and envy you.