A recent article said that one in five in the U.S. speak another language at home. The Census Bureau reported most speak Spanish, followed by Chinese, with Russian quickly rising in popularity. More than 47 million Americans aged five and older, or one in five, speak a language other than English, compared to one in seven 10 years ago.
Feelings of inferiority were never more apparent to me than during my trip last year to China. While I struggle with language in France and even in Mexico somewhat, usually signs and menus are printed in English as well. While many "foreigners" are helpful to "uncultured," English-speaking-only Americans, some are impatient and obviously agitated by our ignorance of their language and culture. After all, we’re guests in their homeland.
I felt like an intruder in the Chinese world, even though as tourists, they’re dependent on Americans traveling to their country and spending. People in hotels and restaurants, as well as most retail businesses, smiled and were welcoming, patient as I tried to communicate. It wasn’t so pleasant in the Shanghai streets. Imagine entering a busy train terminal with all signs and directions printed in Chinese. Hundreds of people, it seemed, stared at the blonde-haired woman looking frightened and lost.
We were warned to walk in groups-with other Chinese if possible. The streets are filled with bicycles, cars, buses, and many pedestrians, all moving very quickly. Feeling brave after a few days, I decided to cross the street from my hotel to a shopping area. Confident, I waited for the green light and began to cross the six lanes of traffic. In seconds, however, the light changed, and I hesitated and turned around. At that moment, I thought I would be killed on a Shanghai street, first by a disgruntled bicyclist, then by any of the hundreds of vehicles that rushed by me. Upon reaching my destination-alive-I made the decision to emphasize how important it is today to learn other languages and cultures to my children, friends, and readers. I found myself limited by my lack of understanding; the problem was truly mine.
Most European and Asian children are taught and can speak several languages, including different dialects. Today’s American high school graduate may have completed four years of one language besides English. Rarely, however, do they have or make the opportunity to converse in that language outside the classroom. Understanding and being able to speak another language is critical today when preparing for a career, or enjoying international travel.
The Peoria Area World Affairs Council encouraged couples to host international dinners last month to promote cultural awareness-a fabulous, fun way for people to learn more about other cultures while being entertained and dining on dishes native to that country. I encourage you to participate in events such as that. Talk with your children about cultural differences, and pique their interests in learning about other countries and tasting ethnic dishes.
Success in our global society won’t be achieved by demanding others to "speak my language," but by embracing other cultures by learning their language. AA!