In a world that is increasingly becoming global, we need to be able to communicate.
Last month, my wife and I traveled to Spain for our second honeymoon and journeyed through a multitude of experiences during the trip. It started at O’Hare Airport when we boarded a British Airways plane named, “The City of Elgin” (Elgin happens to be the name of a city in the United Kingdom). Our steward was from India, looking forward to spending some time in Chicago. Our first stop was London, during which we dined in a restaurant named after the first publisher in England, served by a waiter from France who recommended the veal from Australia. We then took a ferry across the English Channel, landing in France, taking a bus manufactured in Germany, so we could visit our daughter who is an exchange student in Belgium.
One of the families our daughter was staying with also had a son in the United States who was an exchange student learning English in Kansas, communicating via e-mail on a computer manufactured in Korea. We paid for our train ticket to Paris, after converting our British pounds to Belgian francs. In Paris, I viewed a series of American Indian sculptures on a bridge over the River Seine along with a bus load of tourists from Japan. In Caen, we dined in a Chinese restaurant with a Vietnamese waiter who spoke French as we conversed with a couple of German businessmen who lived in Barcelona, Spain.
In Barcelona, we stayed in a French hotel, greeted by a front desk manager from Guatemala. In Madrid, we ate tapas with German beer as the gypsies tried to sell us trinkets made in China.
As we waited in the airport for our flight home, sipping Colombian coffee sweetened with sugar from Cuba, we were overwhelmed by fans who wanted the autographs of band members from an American group who had just finished a European tour.
And then we were home. Piles of mail to be opened. And a conference to attend regarding the state of bilingual education in Illinois.
After returning from a European trip in which we passed through four countries and five languages, I wasn’t in my most patient frame of mind. Here I was, in the midst of administrators fighting for the rights of linguistically challenged students who need additional tutoring and program funding. Something bothered me about this picture. I had just returned from a trip in which students and adults spoke at least two languages, with a third one available for emergencies. It appeared to me that Europeans assume that having the ability to communicate in two or three languages is as normal as we view riding a bicycle.
After recovering from my jet lag and having had time to reflect on the matter, I have come to the conclusion, much like singer Ricky Martin, that we all need to spend more time focusing on the rhythms of life instead of the words. We all have one message – we wish to be heard and understood. We wish to be respected. And there is so much out there in this big old world to be experienced that we shouldn’t allow one language to confine us to the realities of yesterday.
I don’t believe we as a nation should be spending our energies debating the need to retain one’s native language, but rather how to effectively teach our next generation of leaders and business owners how to be fluent in one or two additional languages. In a world that is increasingly becoming global, we need to be able to communicate with a variety of cultures.
I believe the message is clear: We need to take a more encompassing view of our communication skills if we are to remain competitive in a global economy – or we just might wake up one day realizing that we can’t communicate with the new foreign investors who bought out the company where we had been so gainfully employed.
Jerry Campagna is the publisher of Reflejos, a bilingual journal for Fox Valley readers. Readers can comment on his column at (847) 836-8336 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.