Sahale Greenwood and Niley Hingarh
The Santa Clara
October 25, 2018
As you walk down the historic cobble-stoned streets of an old European village, there is one thing that will always give you away as an American. I am not talking about the fanny pack, giant map or American sports team baseball cap. I am talking about English. American tourists rarely know the language of the destination they are visiting and instead walk around hoping the locals speak English.
This assumption works most of the time because many people living or working in tourist destinations do speak English. The main problem is not the language barrier, but its implications.
According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, only 20.7 percent of American adults can speak a second language, whereas 66 percent of all European adults know a second and often a third language.
Americans traveling abroad who expect everyone else to speak English put almost no effort into learning the cultures of others and their forms of expression. Instead, we expect them to work around us.
Learning a new language is a challenge and speaking it to a native is intimidating but worth the effort because it opens the door to a different way of understanding the culture. Words and sentences are our means of communicating what we feel internally, so each unique form of communication creates a slightly varied link from the internal to the external.
There are cultural aspects of language that cannot be translated because they do not have a cultural equivalent. In Hindi, “om” is a word that does not directly translate into any language. It symbolizes peace and oneness with the world and draws its power from the way the word vibrates through your body. This is a key example of how not knowing the language blocks you from truly understanding the culture.
Beyond untranslatable words, different languages’ structures dictate how people think in that language. Japanese was created by noblemen, so their language is from a male perspective that perpetuates some sexist assumptions.
The symbol for woman can be found in the first symbol of the character for slave as well as the symbol for jealousy. The symbol for jealousy has two women in the character because it is viewed in Japan as a woman’s disease. The symbol for peace of mind is a woman under a roof followed by the symbol for heart. This means peace of mind in Japanese would translate to having a woman at home and in your heart.
This is clearly a male-centered view. The structure of these words has inherent biases against women Japanese speakers might unconsciously adopt.
This is why it is so important to speak other languages; each language allows us to think in a slightly different way according to the vocabulary and structure of the environment and culture.
We need to change our monolingual tendencies, not because it is inconsiderate that we require locals in other countries to know and speak English, but because learning other languages allows us to go much deeper into the culture. It allows us to think and feel the way they do, as well as empathize with them.
Simply knowing what people in other parts of the world are doing is not enough. As a leading world power, individuals in the United States need to do more than educate themselves on international affairs. We need to better understand people and their day-today lives. Expecting others to learn English is egocentric. This superiority separates and prevents us from truly understanding others. Once we view everyone as equal it becomes clear that we should be making more of an effort to learn the language of other cultures, just as they are learning ours.
It is not enough to know that the majority of the Middle East is Islamic, a religion people often associate with terrorist groups. If this is all we know, we then might wrongly label the 1.7 billion Muslims worldwide as dangerous.
For example, the word jihad translates to Holy War in English, but we miss the actual intended meaning through that process of translation. Jihad, as it is used in the Quran, refers to the inner struggle to be a good Muslim and build a society that abides by Muslim values. Jihad does mean to struggle to defend Islam but this is done by showcasing what it means to be a good Muslim. It is only when it is taken to its extreme by a very select minority that it becomes an actual war.
If Americans took the time to learn these languages, they would better understand the lives, cultures and thought processes of so many more people. Understanding is the first step we must take toward creating a peaceful world.
As college students, we have the opportunity to better understand other cultures by learning a new language.
At Santa Clara, our study abroad program allows students the opportunity to spin the globe and go wherever they desire. It is up to us to take advantage of this opportunity by learning the language before we go and using it while we are there. Neglecting to do this causes us to miss out on huge cultural and personal aspects of our travels.
Challenge yourself to pursue a language until you start to think in it. It is only then that you will better understand those who speak it.
We need to change our American stereotype of only speaking English. It is doing more than creating bad reputations for tourists. It is making us ignorant people who are incapable of truly empathizing with others, further hindering our abilities to effectively aid countries most in need of our help.
Sahale Greenwood is a sophomore political science and communication double major. Niley Hingarh is a first-year philosophy major.