Monday, September 27, 2010

Why one must travel

Alles Gute zum Geburtstag!
Berber Kaiser celebrates her birthday at Oktoberfest.  
Photo by Arne Kaiser.

  Last Thursday, my son and I went to the Matterhorn Grill for Oktoberfest.  We have lots and lots of German blood in us, so we joined others in celebrating German culture, heritage, and traditions.

  We sang in German.  We tried to speak our little bit of German.

  And then, we ate in German.  We had bratwurst, spaetzle, apple strudel, and then my German failed and I ate the nameless beets and chicken dishes and drank a double-bach beer.  They tasted just as good.

  I used up my 4 phrases of German pretty quick, and then, for some reason, a new-found friend and I started speaking French.  I mean, it's a European language, right?!  It seemed appropriate.

  My new friend was (impressively) learning Italian, French, German, and Finnish at NAU and from friends.  He wants to learn as many languages as possible, and he thinks that everyone should be able to speak at least two languages.

 But this is hard for Americans.  Perhaps it's due to our cultural and geographical isolation.  Perhaps it's due to our economic dominance.  Maybe we've just tried so hard to fit ourselves into an American identity that we've lost the appreciation for other languages.

  I remember growing up, and having no reason for learning Spanish.  I vaguely understood that someone, somewhere spoke this language.  I simply had never been immersed in a foreign language, never traveled to a non-English speaking country.  I had never heard Spanish outside of the classroom.

  But my son has.  I think one of his most valuable lessons in language integration was traveling to Spain, and making friends with Spanish kiddos on the plane and on the beach.  One of my proudest translation moments was standing near the tide pools in the Canary Islands and translating to a boy that my son wanted to play with him, wanted to catch crawdads and build sand castles.  And then, it was no longer important to translate words, because the universal language of play took over.

  Exposure to different languages and cultures, and most importantly, people similar to us, is important to motivate us to learn foreign languages.  We don't operate in a vacuum.  One must travel, and if travel isn't possible, then one must go to experience things like Oktoberfest!


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