Seek to understand rather than to be understood

Foreign Language Bookshop neon sign
Foreign Language Bookshop neon sign (Photo credit: avlxyz)

If language education improved in the US, we would have to undergo a cultural shift.  The Prayer of Saint Francis states this shift clearly as he writes, “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek . . . to be understood, as to understand.”  Our citizens need to see that those who come from outside the US have something to teach us to become better Americans.  This shift must emphasize hearing others and putting forth the effort so we can understand them.  We need to understand them more than to be understood by them.

At the present, the US speaks its own English.  We listen to those who speak English because as a culture we do not put resources into learning languages.  We put forth few resources into schools to teach foreign languages.  When we work or socialize among people who speak other languages, we do not put time or energy into speaking their languages.  By US law we provide resources for kids to learn English so they can access education.  We provide English language education to adults, as resources permit.  Overseas we look for those who speak English–those who have capitulated to our need to talk to them.  In short we put forth efforts for people to understand us.

If we shifted our vision of education, we would emphasize how we understand others over how others understand us.  We would inject more resources into language education in schools, devoting more time in the school day for it, perhaps taking time away from other subjects.  In the workplace we would put time and energy into learning the languages of the people we work with.  In our schools, all kids would have to spend hours learning a new language, not just new immigrants; even adults who already finished school would learn the languages of immigrants.  Before we travelled overseas we would take time to learn and understand the language, and we would continue learning during our trip. Resources would go towards learning other ways of speaking.

The benefits of learning a language ultimately outweigh the costs.  It takes resources to learn languages: a little money and a ton of time.  You have to sound dumb sometimes; you have to ask “what?” a lot.  But once you learn how to speak a language, you learn how to hear others.  Rather than expect others to understand you, you take responsibility to understand them.  We benefit as a new world of knowledge and wisdom open up to learn from.

Once we can speak the language of others, we can hear them; once we can hear them we can learn from them.  The immigrants that come to this country make the US great.  They have sacrificed for the sake of their family’s interest, leaving behind the comfort of the familiar.  Some of them come as refugees, leaving behind horrible conditions, travelling an impossible path.  All of our citizens stand to learn from these people, from the wisdom they acquired from their difficult experiences.  They are resourceful and savvy, entrepreneurial and wise.  And they teach best in their own words, in their own language.

If we turn the focus off of how others can understand us and how we can understand them, we can learn.  If our people sacrifice resources so that we can learn languages, we will gain wisdom.  We learn how to speak another language, and we learn to hear a new way of life to add to our own experiences.  When our culture shifts to wanting to learn from everyone, we would put forth the necessary resources for learning languages.

Do you agree?  Would it improve our country if we put more resources into learning new languages, rather than expect everyone to learn English?

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5 thoughts on “Seek to understand rather than to be understood

  1. Pingback: To be American is to be multilingual « Loving Language

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