Attending some mid-year committee meetings of the Baptist World Alliance reminded me of how lucky I am to be a native English speaker — and also how far behind much of the world that puts me. Representatives from a slew of countries were there: at a moment’s thought I can recall people from Estonia, Norway, Finland, Germany, England, Nigeria, South Africa, Australia, Jamaica, Argentina, Canada, and Brazil — and that’s just a start.
Yet all of the business was conducted in English. Whenever I attend meetings like that, I feel very fortunate that English is my language, but also somewhat envious of those who have done the work of becoming fluent in a second language.
I took two years of Latin in high school. I can work in Hebrew and Greek, and once passed reading proficiency tests in French and German — but beyond a small smattering of Spanish, I can’t speak or understand any of them at normal speed.
Most of my friends from Africa speak two or three local dialects in addition to English and sometimes another language. My European friends are often proficient in their national tongue plus a couple of other European languages — and English.
Most American high schools require students to take a foreign language, but few students remain committed enough to keep it up in college, get into an immersion program, and learn to have genuine conversations in other languages.
We’re poorer for that. Learning other languages involves more than words: it also opens windows into different mindsets, different ways of looking at the world. We could use more of that.
Then again, we could also do a better job of listening carefully to others who speak our own language. There’s no telling what we might learn.