Spread the love

Perhaps because of my daily Duolingo sessions, 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 international/cross-cultural understanding? (Perhaps 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). 

  The answers to these questions are not as simple as my parenthetical replies imply. 

I’ve traveled abroad three times and am overdue to travel overseas 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 little interaction with native speakers (Qué lastima!). At Oberlin College, I experimented with different majors of study (English, then Communications, then Spanish, and 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” and “History of Mexico”) was taught in Spanish by natives, and I lived in a boarding house where no one spoke English (though I had an American roommate and several American classmates from several other colleges and universities). Finally, during my third year of graduate studies at The Ohio State University, where I was pursuing Masters’s and Ph.D. degrees in Experimental Social Psychology, I joined my graduate school adviser, Tom Ostrom, a distinguished visiting professor at the University of Bergen, Norway, for six 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 six months of study and travel there have resulted in friendships which remain today, a much deeper appreciation of another culture, and a humbling of what I knew.

Unfortunately, as a youth, I almost had my interest in learning another language destroyed by misinterpreted psychological test results. I recall being devastated by the experience of being told that I had “failed” a foreign language aptitude test. The “failure” probably motivated me to attempt to learn foreign languages in High School and, eventually, to study psychology (to understand better why children succeed or fail and the effects of performance labels).  In high school, I took two years of Latin (thank you, Mrs.  Bode—Gratias tibi ago!), culminating with obtaining the highest score in 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 Roman culture was enriching and rewarding. It no doubt facilitated my two years of study of Spanish in High School, 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, and an opportunity to learn about the culture and its literature, music, art, theater, politics, history, customs, and 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!

Thank you, Katerina (from Kurgan), Hersonia (from Mexico), Reidar (from Norway), and Irma (from Lithuania), for your many acts of kindness, good humor, and inexhaustible patience with this curious professor as he attempted to become more globally educated and internationally aware. I am indebted to you for the lessons learned, and I admire, respect, and envy you. Thanks also to the many international students (from China, Vietnam, India, and Pakistan) who educated me while I taught at Carroll College/University.