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Language and Being American in the World

The latest news that a US Government contractor in Afghanistan placed our soldiers at risk by passing off non-Afghan speakers from the US as Pashto translators, reiterates the importance of being versatile in a language other than our own in this interconnected world.

I work as an English communicator for a German organization that must operate in English in the world outside its borders. I understand rudimentary German, am comfortable in Germany's corporate culture, am at ease with the technical language and jargon, but would like to be proficient. Most Germans speak their native tongue as well as English fluently, and often also speak French or Italian.

As one walks by elementary schools in Germany, one hears kindergartners and first graders singing songs and reciting chants in languages not their own. This early learning must explain their ease in multiple languages. I envy Germans' linguistic versatility and regret my own lack of it, but then remember that any languages that were available to me growing up in the UK were offered in the high school years -- after the capacity to learn new language declines, according to neuroscientists. In Chicago, where I live now, it delights me to hear of schools offering Mandarin in grade school. There's no telling how far a Chinese-speaking American third-grader can go in a world where China is an economic super power and if Shanghai becomes Chicago's sister city.

Genevieve Chase, a Pashto-trained linguist and US Army Sargeant who served in Afghanistan in 2006, told ABC's 20/20 it was not unusual for US interpreters in Afghanistan to be ignorant of the languages they claimed to be fluent in. According to the report, Chase "recalled odd exchanges where Afghan elders would speak at great length and the interpreter would turn to the American soldiers and translate, "He said, 'Okay.'"

Faking understanding of a foreign language is a common vanity. Resumes often cite fluency and proficiency in multiple languages, when they merely mean the rote memorization of stock phrases in a particular language. Fortunately, unlike the translators in Afghanistan and the mercenary company that hires them, the impact of pretending language fluency is usually only comedic.

In the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Butch, played by the late, great Paul Newman, plots a move to Bolivia to escape a bounty-hunting sheriff's posse. Before long, he has convinced Sundance (Robert Redford haloed in an electric glow of rugged American male sensuality) of his fluency in Spanish. Sundance explains the reasons for the duo's move to Bolivia to his girl, Etta, played by the lovely Katherine Ross: "Butch here speaks some Spanish." Left unsaid, the fact that the linguist's Spanish consisted of two words: nues and nuestro
After learning specialized bankrobbing terminology in Spanish, they attempt holding up a Bolivian bank:

Butch: Manos a ... Manos, um ... [Butch pulls out his cheat sheet) Manos arriba!

Sundance: They got 'em up! Skip on down.

Butch: Arriba

Sundance: Skip on down!

Butch: Todos ustedes arrismense a la pared.

Sundance: They're against the wall already!

Butch: Donde ... Ah, you're so damn smart, you read it.

After watching several people I love succumb to Alzheimer's, I looked to neuroscience to give me answers and found something compelling and true about the brain and language. The research shows neural connections and cognitive function renewed, improved, and even established by the struggle and tentativeness of learning difficult things. Learning a language is one way. It's a more than difficult thing when one undertakes it as an adult. I'm studying German and hope to be comfortable in French one day ... one day.

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