“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” – Nelson Mandela

By Stephanie Webb. Stephanie, 31, lives in Austin, Texas, USA. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

The United States is a country of many native people, but most of the population prefers to exclude others to maintain comfortable self-image. We revere our ethnic communities, but our sentiments alter drastically when members of those communities move beyond simply entertaining onlookers. To be sure, this country – in the legal sense – began as an English speaking country, since the founding documents were written by men from Great Britain who could not otherwise afford land. However, the land itself was managed by Native Americans, with conquests by the Spanish and French, with African slaves to tend the land. While English speaking people may have conquered much of the land and created a Manifest Destiny, this nation has never been a solely English speaking society. Contrarily, most Americans are reluctant to accept that it would be more authentic and historically accurate to be more multicultural. Cajun French would have never existed if the French had never lived here, and Spanish spoken in the southwest is more heavily Anglicized than Spanish spoken in other countries. Basically, all language is affected by its location, but all locations have multiple languages. It would behoove Americans to transition into a more multilingual society rather than attempt to force everyone to adhere to a language which is slowly, but surely, losing its monopoly on the world.

All countries are looking to appeal to the desirables, and tourism and international real estate are huge industries, even with the collapse of the housing market. Many smaller countries are beginning to capitalize on the fact that the more languages are spoken, the more business one gets. When high profile immigrants are looking to relocate, even if they do speak English, they are looking for areas that are more receptive to their native cultures, and do not require intense assimilation. Education is also becoming a bigger business, with competitive universities building international campuses. If people – especially in the United States – become more multilingual, they have the opportunity to share and receive more knowledge. Brazil has figured out how to make gasoline out of sugar, which would create wider trade opportunities with smaller countries in the Caribbean. Whether sugar is more sustainable than oil or not, Portuguese would be admirable for those looking to exploit green energy – as Spanish and Portuguese are so similar. Garnering international attention is easier to do when more citizens are willing to be multilingual.

Another reality is the difficulty in adapting to a more global society. Even if Earth is not the only planet with sustained life, we know that no one country rules the world, even if the United States refuses to admit it. Other languages, cultures and religions abound, and as language is the strongest barrier, we remain in unceasing conflict over sometimes simple misunderstandings. The United States became more competitive because it educated its citizenry; now most countries have more nationalized education systems, although unlike the United States, those countries put heavy emphasis on being a multilingual. As a more international community, we would all understand the congruencies of our cultures, and recognize different approaches for solving similar problems. Building international study groups seems like an ideal opportunity for building more effective collaboration among other countries, as well as raising tolerant children. I can attest that speaking both English and Spanish makes my work at the Texas Secretary of State more enjoyable because fewer people are frustrated when registering their businesses for the first time. I am simply forced to use the most basic terms to explain the business registration process to those who speak Spanish. The more we observe how people are like us, the weaker the influence of xenophobia. Relationships, working, poverty, and the urban/rural debate are universal, which would be more obvious if we were all more multilingual.

Because of how the country began, most people in the United States still associate race with language, so much so that we have recreated the caste system. Recently, Disney – which already has a history of racial misrepresentation – has received backlash for having a Hispanic princess who appears Caucasian. As I see it, the problem is not simply the appearance, but the assumption that someone who appears “White” would not be Spanish speaking or related to any Hispanic culture. If more American polyglots existed, we as citizens would feel less confident about our racial assignations to certain linguistic patterns and human behaviors. After all, Italy had conquests in Ethiopia, so I wonder what the Italian communities in various cities throughout the United States would think of people of African descent who spoke Italian as their native language. Conversely, how would most American Black people react? As an American Black woman, I am confident that skepticism, cynicism, or outright derision would meet such people.

Becoming bilingual is challenging because as people age, learning new languages becomes more difficult – which explains the push for multilingualism in public elementary schools in the United States. Citizens of host countries to large immigrant populations are more resentful, claiming that said immigrants are refusing to acclimate, even while immigrant exploitation is considered acceptable. Many American parents are so hateful of Hispanic immigrants that segregation in schools remains an intense problem, inciting a vicious dichotomy of Asian and White students versus Black and Latino students, Black students being “intellectually inferior.” Instead of sustaining hostility, I would posit the realization of two key concepts. First of all, there are immigrant populations all over the world, and countries are recognizing the urgent need to communicate with all humans in their native tongues. South Africa is a prime example, as it has 11 national languages, although Haiti would be more congruent with the United States as it has more citizens who speak English, French, and Spanish towards its center. Moreover, if people were all learning to be more bilingual, all would become more empathetic to others who are struggling to learn new languages, because speaking a non-native tongue is requires confidence as most native speakers are impatient. However, if we would all be more receptive to non-native speakers, many would be more patient with our errors in their languages. One should never underestimate the power of shared frustration, otherwise known as the seed for revolution.

The rise of the internet denotes the facetiousness of a superpower. In fact, improving technology all but guarantees the end of traditional competition among superpowers, as international consensus will require redistribution of natural resources and changing land use patterns. As knowledge and resources can be shared more readily, all people will have to develop a way to be more attractive as human beings. Yes, translation software will be more readily available, but spontaneity and one’s natural state of being will be more important. Xenophobia is recognizably obsolete, and we need multilingualism to counter its lingering effects. Even in the United States, we have the responsibility to communicate with each other and the shrinking of the world requires it.

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