The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

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Bilingualism is essential to diversity

Multilingualism is an undeniably powerful tool in today’s world—in more ways than one.  Not only can the knowledge of one or more foreign languages assist in boosting one’s resume, it also opens communication with an entirely new world.

We all consider the United States to be a melting pot, and this is true—in regards to race.  In terms of multilingualism, we trail behind the rest of the world.  Less than 25 percent of America can hold a conversation in another language, and even this percentage is far higher than the number of actual multilingual citizens.  For example, I can hold my own in a Spanish conversation, but I am far from being truly bilingual.

In addition, most of those who are indeed bilingual in our country were raised speaking a language other than English—very few multilingual citizens of the U.S. were raised with English and then taught other languages.  It is simply not as important to us as it is to other countries. Why is that when we consider ourselves to be so incredibly diverse?

Fifty percent of Europeans can speak more than one language, which is little compared to the almost 80 percent of European students who are multilingual.  In the world, 66 percent of children are raised with more than one language; this illuminates, quite clearly, how far behind other countries we are with regards to multilingualism.

While in Spain recently, I noticed how few Spaniards speak English (as it turns out, less than any other European country).  Although I was grateful for my mediocre Spanish and found my stay to be nonetheless pleasant, my peers who were among me—and who did not speak any Spanish—found the country’s citizens to be rude and unwelcoming.

I pondered this discrepancy for a few days before I saw the irony in it: Do we not, in America, expect foreign visitors to speak adequate English if they are going to travel here?  If a customer came into your store and spoke to you solely in Chinese (assuming you speak no Chinese), would it not frustrate you?  Yet, we travel to a Spanish-speaking country and expect them to be warm and welcoming when we cannot communicate with them at all.  I also must point out that more people speak Spanish as their first language in this world than English, so it seems just as fair for Spanish citizens to expect their visitors to speak some Spanish if we expect ours to speak some English.

On another trip, this time in Bulgaria, the circumstances were a bit different.  More people spoke English, though not many; however, most everyone I came across spoke more than two languages.  I met one woman who spoke Bulgarian, Russian, Italian, German, and Spanish who was positively baffled that my friends and I could not communicate with her in any of these languages.  We spoke for an hour in Spanish about why it is so common for Americans to speak only English, and I have since wondered.

Some would argue that the cause is the sheer size of our country and the fact that it is bordered only by Mexico and Canada—another English-speaking country (although Canada, bordered by only English-speakers, is 10 percent more bilingual than we are).  I would argue that it is also possible that many Americans are so egocentric that they often expect everyone around them to speak English because it is so widely spoken.  However, in perspective, only five percent of the world speaks English as their first language.

Either scenario is incredibly unfortunate.  Being bilingual is vastly useful and important, and according to many studies, it is markedly more difficult after puberty.  It is imperative that children be taught early to speak another language. Whether or not travel is in one’s future, there will always be travelers—and even citizens in our country—who do not speak our language.  Being able to communicate with them is not only rewarding, but important. It would be lovely if language acquisition was simpler, but a mixture of chemical capabilities and synapse formation makes it easiest at a young age.

Many parents refrain from teaching their children a foreign language because they cannot speak one themselves; this is an obstacle easily overcome by foreign language immersion programs.  Other parents simply assume it is unimportant, but this is entirely untrue.

With our rapidly improving technology and communication abilities, it is ever-imperative to be bilingual. I have encountered numerous obstacles in my life that have caused me to wish I was not only bilingual, but trilingual.  Especially in Southern California, where Spanish is spoken nearly as often as English, we need to realize how important this skill is, and we need to harness it.

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