Bilingual, Multilingual and Monolingual

I am multilingual. I speak many languages, some better than others.

I give the thanks to my parents who spoke both Spanish and English at home. The neighbors and church congregation were also bilingual. Also thanks to my grade school teachers who, up to 5th grade, also spoke Spanish and English, and presented the daily lessons in both languages. Through exposure I learned both languages while growing up. Was I confused learning to speak both at the same time? Not really.

When I was very little and I was learning my colors, I didn’t realize that “redcolorado” was actually two words. I learned both words for red at the same time. And then there was “blueazul” etc. But as I got older I learned which words were Spanish, which were English and which were Spanglish.

A Word in Spanglish

That 3rd language was tricky. Yes, Spanglish is really a language, ask most bilingual Hispanic kids and they will tell you about the special words that only exist in the Spanglish vocabulary. It’s like a secret language, because to understand it you must first have a basic understanding of both Spanish and English. If you only know one of the 2 languages, you will be lost.

To eh-speak eh-Spanglish you must mix up your Spanish and English words in your sentences. And you do it on the fly. Sometimes the sentence will follow Spanish grammar rules and other times it will follow English grammar rules. When you can mix up the grammar in addition to the vocabulary, and understand when another is doing the same, then you are a true Spanglish speaker. Don’t laugh, es verdad.

In adulthood I began working for international companies and I learned other languages. I can speak a little of Italian, Portuguese, French, and German. I’ve also noticed that I can muddle my way thru a few other languages some European & some Asian. I seem to have an eye and ear for languages.

Language is about Culture

Learning another language is more than just a means to communicate with other people from different countries. Any language course worth it’s salt will not just teach you a new language in a vacuum, they will also teach you the culture of the peoples that speak that language … and variations of it.

The language of a group of people carries with it several customs and traditions. Learn the language and you’ll learn their culture. Learn their culture and you’ll learn their ways. Learn their ways and then you’ll finally understand what you are saying when you speak the words.

In James Cameron’s Avatar, the Na’vi phrase “I see you” carried a special meaning. The main character Jake Sully didn’t get the full meaning of the words until he learned the Navi‘s culture and traditions. Most cultures have similar idiomatic expressions – phrases whose meanings cannot be determined by the individual words that comprise the phrase. If you don’t know the culture and traditions behind the language, then how can you be sure you know what you are saying (or hearing someone else say to you)?

Language opens your Mind

If you can speak, read, write and/or understand another language and culture then you are opening your mind to other people’s way of life. It’s a big planet and we don’t all do things the exact same way or even for the same reasons.

I hate to generalize but, with almost very little exception, I have found that most monolingual people don’t care to learn about other peoples or their language. If they just want to live in their little corner of the planet, ignorant of other cultures, then fine. To each their own. But when a monolingual insists that others have to learn their language & culture (mostly because they are too lazy to learn anyone else’s language), then I take issue. I believe that everyone has the right to live in ignorance, but no one has the right to impose their ignorance on anyone else.

Now if that Tower of Babel fiasco hadn’t happened then we would all be speaking one language. But it did, and here we are, all on one planet with hundreds of languages and dialects between us. An invading alien force would have to bring along a damn good universal translator in order to communicate their intentions to the whole world… or just a few well placed warning shots should do the trick too.

Literature in other Languages

And if you are a student of literature, just imagine all the stories that are waiting to be discovered in the libraries of these other cultures. Some tales may seem similar but most will probably be very different from those found in your own culture. And as the saying goes “it loses something in translation” … and that is true. So instead of reading the English version of a foreign book, try learning the language and you’ll be surprised at how different the story reads.

And finally lets not forgot that Shakespeare can only truly be experienced in the original Klingon. 🙂


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