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Tom Kennedy's Blog

Learning a Language

 Permanent link

Learning a Language

Comments delivered at the Omicron Sigma Chapter of Sigma Delta Pi Sociedad Nacional Honoraria Hispánica:

Even if you don’t speak the language, you can get by quite well in a foreign country if you have a handy little phrase book.  It helps, too, if you have a cute, exuberant, 6 year old. I know this from experience. From 1993-1995 my family lived in Cambridge, England and almost every vacation we headed to the continent (usually driving a large right-hand drive van on roads that were, quite sensibly, constructed for left-hand drive cars, unlike those in Britain where our van was from). We drove through France and Italy and Switzerland and Belgium and the Netherlands, phrase book at the ready. (I recommend Rick Steve’s Europe Through the Back Door phrase books; they served us very well!) One of our trips was to Barcelona and the Pyrenees of northern Spain. 

In high school I studied Spanish for two years—no, let me correct that—I was enrolled in Spanish courses for two years—with Señor Strauss. But I did very little studying in high school. Always fickle, in college I switched my allegiance to German (and then Greek and Hebrew and later a little French). Twenty some years later, lazy high school Spanish doesn’t leave you a lot to operate with in a foreign country, and that’s why you buy the phrasebook and carry the cute kid with you.

And, really, it isn’t that hard, is it? Dónde está el baño, por favor? And, no, you can’t understand the response, but if you stand there with a vacant, nervous look on your face and start fidgeting or, better yet, get your 6 year old kid to act like he really, really has to go, they will understand and they will point you in the right direction. Pointing is a universal language—though that isn’t true of other signs you might make with your hands. Dogs get pointing. So do monoglot American tourists. And,  “Cuánto cuesta?” If you are a tourist and you have money to spend, most folks will figure out how to communicate the essentials to you, especially if you have a cute kid ask them—and act out writing down the answer. Are there other essential phrases? Dónde hay buen café? That about does it.

And so it was for most of our trip in Spain. We travelled up into the Pyrenees Mountains in France and into Spain on small country roads, cows sometimes filling the lane in front of us as they moved from one grazing field to another.  We stopped in small villages and played pooh sticks on ancient Roman bridges after walks through the village. We travelled down the C-38 to the volcanic region and the market town of Olot before heading east to Besalú and Banyoles. We were on the trail of old Romanesque churches mostly—isn’t that what every 13 year old and six year old wants to do on vacation, visit old churches? The amazing west façade in Ripoli, Sant Pere Church in Besalú on Palm Sunday, centuries old black madonnas painted on the walls of ancient churches in the middle of nowhere in Catalonia. And, of course, then, Barcelona, where our excuse for our linguistic incompetence was that we couldn’t be expected to speak Catalan, after all, could we? Well, other than “Barthelona”, not Barcelona.

Barcelona, of course, is a great place for children of all ages, and especially for those who have spent a lot of time cooped up in a car with grown-ups who seem uninterested in much other than coffee, mountains, and old churches. Barcelona, of course, has Gaudí all over the place, and what could delight more than Gaudí’s wonderful architecture—the salamanders in the Parc Güell or that wonderful entry into the park; or the Casa Batlló or La Sagrada Familia. And were Gaudi not enough, there is Parc de Joan Miró; and La Rambla would be a great place for a kid to run if only his parents would let go of his hand. And, of course, food. Wonderfully tasty food. And maybe something other than plato del dia. Perhaps Paella with fresh seafood. And Crème Caramel for dessert!

The height of the trip for our children, though, was the Salvador Dalí Museum in Figueres. The museum is a large pink building decorated with bread rolls all over the sides and large eggs at the top. The museum is as strange and wonderful inside as it is outside. Our children reveled in Dalí’s wild imagination as we toured the museum—the Car Naval in the patio, the Mae West room—behind a large group of American senior citizens. As expected, these Americans were loud, and by and large they found Dalí’s work both dumb and disturbing. They should have stayed on the bus and left the museum to us kids.

Apart from a very brief visit to Mexico City, fifteen years passed before my next foray into a Spanish-speaking climate. This time I was, at least initially, travelling by myself, to Costa Rica and Nicaragua, to learn about environmental issues and sustainability practices in these two very different Latin American countries. I landed in San José, joined a group of American professors, and we travelled around Costa Rica with our guides, an American who had lived in Costa Rica for more than a decade and a native Costa Rican coffee grower activist intellectual. We travelled from coast to coast, from shore to mountain in Costa Rica. We carefully and respectfully waited approval from the heavily armed Nicaraguan border guards before entering Nicaragua on our all day boat ride from Costa Rica to Lake Nicaragua to Rio San Juan to El Castillo, a small riverboat village which is accessible only by boat. A village filled with satellite dishes contributed to the village by a candidate in the last election. A village where the kids went to a little open-air shop on the main street to play video games on old tv sets. A village, just like everywhere else on this trip, in which you could get by with a native speaker or two as your guides, a phrase book, and the generosity of your host people and a smile. (Or even, in my case, without the smile.)

Those are my journeys—so far. You, I suspect, have had your own travels. And, like me, you are daydreaming about your next trip. Where you will go? What you will do? I’ve a pilgrimage to do, but I’m not sure that Camino de Santiago is the right one for me. But if not that, what?

Why do we travel? We have different reasons, different motivations, though for all of us we travel because, in some sense, we want our world to be bigger. For some, it is acquisitiveness that drives us. A bigger world is a world in which we’ve gotten more than we had. For such, travel is about consumption. There is something over there that I don’t own, experiences I haven’t had. I want those experiences. I need to acquire them. 

For others it is less about having something we don’t yet have, less about adding to the collection of photos or experiences that rival or top those our friends have had, and more about the appreciation of beauty in its natural and creative forms, of being moved by a sunset in a Pyrenees valley, of marveling at buildings designed by Gaudí. It is not about consuming something, not about trying to own something we do not own. It is about something bigger than us. The experience of beauty expands our world. Beauty, which comes in many shapes and forms, transcends you and me and our country. In travel, the experience of beauty enlarges our world.

A desire for understanding, too, motivates travel, for understanding itself is world enhancing, and world enlarging. Travel rightly and well, and self-understanding is an inevitable result as we learn about ourselves by engaging other people, and other cultures and cultural objects that, we discover, are like us and our culture and our cultural artifacts in surprising ways and sometimes others that we discover are in other ways markedly different from us. I learn about myself. I learn about the world I share with others. And with this understanding, my world is expanded. 

This experience can be morally formative, can teach me, if I will let it, that I am not the center of the universe, that the story of this world may be a story I share in, but it is not my story as such. When I travel I can learn how much the story of the world is, in fact, my story. I love strolling La Ramblas. The smile of the Catalan who enters the Parc Güell is my smile, too. I am moved by Dalí’s crucifixion of Jesus just like that group of Glaswegians. I like running and I like coffee, just like my coffee-growing friend, Guillermo, and like him, I worry about how the demands for beef to eat are affecting the rain forests in Costa Rica. The story of other peoples is very much my story. And yet it is not. This I learn, too, as I travel. I nap in a hammock, but I do not sleep, night after night, in one. I have much different expectations with respect to toilets and hot water. I can, unlike most of the people I see in Nicaragua, go where I want to go when I want to go and I do not have to travel on a crowded boat-bus. The story of the world in all its beauty and richness and wonder is a story I share with others. And when I travel well, I see not only that, but I also learn from how different the world is as inhabited by others.

Or I might. But for you who are inducted into Sigma Delta Pi today, there is no might, is there?  Your study of Spanish has already enlarged and expanded your world. Your world is considerably richer, both aesthetically and morally, from your study of Spanish. Consider this: In your study of Spanish (and in your excellence in studying Spanish) you have implicitly declared that there is a story different than yours that is worthy of your attention, worthy of your trying to understand. You have said (and your motivation for this is irrelevant) by your studying Spanish that you get that this world is not all about you, that there is an other with a language and a culture worthy of engagement, and a language and a culture that will likely surprise you both by how different it is from yours and how similar it is to yours. By your excellence in the study of Spanish you have recognized the value in something other than you. And that is to say that your study of Spanish is a major moral achievement, in some sense and however momentarily or however incomplete, your study expresses at least a partial displacement of the fat relentless ego (as the philosopher Iris Murdoch put it) that dogs us all. Your accomplishment in Spanish is a moral accomplishment. Your world has been morally enlarged.

And the same is true aesthetically. In your study of Spanish you have encountered and have experienced artworks in a way that those with less familiarity with the language or the culture cannot. It is one thing to see photographs of Casa Batlló; it is another thing entirely to see it as you walk the streets of Barcelona. One thing to read Twenty Poems and a Song of Despair and another thing to have read Veinte poemas de amor y una cancíon desesperada.

But perhaps that is too abstract. I have told you that one can get along quite well in a non-English speaking country with a good phrasebook, a cute kid, and/or some native speakers. All that is true enough. I can honor the people of the Pyrenees by visiting churches that have been valued and visited by their people for centuries; I can marvel at that at which they marvel. I can show my respect for Barcelonans by taking in, properly, the Sagrada Familia; I can revel in that in which they revel. But these are objects, not people. What you can do, because you have studied the language as you have, is engage a wider array of objects and what you can do is show your respect for the people, is honor the individuals of Spain or Costa Rica or Nicaragua or Mexico by speaking with them in their tongue because you have learned their language as you have. Your accomplishment today is an academic accomplishment, to be sure. But it is also a moral accomplishment. Your world is bigger, morally and aesthetically, because of your excellence in the study of Spanish.

I congratulate you on that. Berry has done something right by providing you with this opportunity to excel in Spanish, and I am grateful for that. Build on that. Travel wisely and well, in small groups, and use your language skills to engage others, to express your recognition of the beauty of their world and, with the words that you can speak to them, the value and dignity of their lives.

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