We are missing out on a learning opportunity as a society. Rather than encourage the perpetuation, growth, and exchange of language, fear drives out languages. Building walls to keep out foreign others takes precedence over listening to new voices that may know more than us. Forcing them, in spite of their past and present struggles, to talk to us in our language insults and degrades them and us.
Alternatively, we could learn the languages around us, and put our resources and our prestige behind teaching these languages to our children. Let my children speak to their friends’ parents in their language, while their friend speaks to me in mine—or teaches me hers. Learning the stories that come from “the old country” holds a mirror up to our society, revealing the good, the bad, and the ugly, for us to celebrate, to correct, or to apologize for.
When we do not strive to speak another language, we become stuck in fear and awkwardness. Rather than sound like a foolish child, we make ourselves into stubborn children. “Abdulrahman,” a boy whose name dedicates him as a servant of the merciful god, becomes “Abdi” with no more meaning than “Jim.” Simplifying the complexity around us, we starve ourselves of a moment of contemplation, of the life of service and the duty of mercy. Instead, we make it easier for our mouths to fit around foreign consonants, and relate to the boy like a “regular” kid.
Should we venture out into the realm of foreign speech, we become more and more those who dive into mystery and surface with wisdom. Proverbs confront us, sometimes with laughter, sometimes with furrowed brows, by relating a unique way of life to a common wisdom. The one whose speech isolates him from the conversation, is welcomed into the group—and the group benefits. Funny anecdotes and tragic stories alike allow everyone to think differently about their lives.
They will waken parts of our brain that have slept since the day we were born. The student of Japanese confronts the complexity of honorifics, forced to contemplate the relationship between me and you before he can say “you.” The student of Russian puzzles whether she reached the store or not before she can say “went.” The student of Oromo struggling to remember how long to hold a “b” so he says “lap” (bobaa) instead of “excrement” (bobbaa). All babies are born able to distinguish effortlessly among these categories—but we all forget.
Languages will not bring peace. Civil wars happen. Families feud. But they can open us to new sources of wisdom. They can allow us to become those who seek openness, wisdom, connection, while experiencing challenge, failure, and humiliation. We can use languages to coerce others, market our products to others, and show our power over others.
The source of these good things surround us: a waiter at a Chinese restaurant, the cashier at the store, the parents of our kids’ friends.
Reach out to someone whose language you can’t understand, who works hard to learn yours. Humbly submit to them as you strive for wisdom. Ask:
How do you say, “Nice to see you?”