Monday, January 25, 2016

The Importance of Language

Living in Mongolia has brought me a new perspective on language. As I navigate living in a country where I must learn to speak a language that is foreign in its appearance, origins, and vowel sounds, I have become increasingly aware of superiority of language. Not in the sense of one language being better than another, but rather that the knowledge of some languages grant the speaker power.

Often our Mongolian friends will bring a new piece of technology to Sally or me. Usually, it is a computer or phone that uses an English interface making it almost impossible for a Mongolian to troubleshoot the problem. Sally and I are viewed as technology wizards capable of fixing the un-fixable, but really we just know English.

Imagine that you are a Mongolian. You live in an enormous country as big as Alaska with a small population of just 3 million people. (Alabama is 4.8 million) This means that of the billions of people on this planet, you are among the 10 million that speak Mongolian. (There are pockets of people that speak a dialect of Mongolian in China, and also isolated groups in western Asia/eastern Europe.) The world that Americans take for granted- internet, movies, literature- is mostly closed to you. Sure Google translate can help, but it is sloppy at best and doesn’t translate web page content accurately. Only popular movies can be found with subtitles, and of the immense scope of literature that is in the world, a very small amount has been translated well into Mongolian. Sometimes the translation is a slaughter of the original work. 

Prior to coming to Mongolia, I was on the fence about the importance of teaching English to developing countries. It felt like we were pushing our language where it might not be needed. Wouldn’t skills like agriculture, medicine, business be of better use? I now realize that English is perhaps the best gift we can give to these countries. In this modern technological world, English provides access to the limitless horizon of knowledge that we take for granted in America.
Our country has in its time been arguably the most innovative in the world. We are lucky that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs started a revolution in our language. We remain fortunate that English is the go to language for the publication of scientific articles and medical advances.  Our past generations have shaped the world in such a way that the average American (until recently myself included) doesn’t feel the need to become fluent in another language.
SO with the obvious superiority of English, why should we learn another language? Setting aside the intellectual benefit of stimulating the brain through language learning, what is the point? In ten years, the electronic translators may be so good that almost fluent conversation could occur with any country in the world.  We speakers of English never have trouble navigating a world where almost every airport has English translation. Why should we put forth the time and effort to learn another language or teach our children?
The reason I continue to fall back upon is because it builds bridges. Learning a language crosses cultural divides and creates long-lasting connections with the world around us. It reminds us that we are not alone in this world that is quickly becoming a global economy and perhaps eventually global country. Showing the people of the world that we want to be global citizens, that we are not superior, is vital for forward progress. The best way to do this is to promote bi-lingual education.
By learning another language, we immerse ourselves in another culture. We gain the respect of native speakers and become ambassadors for our way of life that is great if not the best. It is important that in this ever changing world that the American people are not perceived as isolationist.  


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