THE BLOG

The Gift of Language

11/05/2012 05:32 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Languages have always fascinated me. From an early age I realized that different groups of people spoke different languages--and the words they used provided a window into unique worldviews.

This was because I grew up in a bilingual community in Western Kansas. To visit Hays, Kansas, today, a person might not realize, but in the first half of the twentieth century, a majority of the population did not speak English as a native language, but rather German. The German speakers were descendants of as group called the Volga Germans, Bavarians who had immigrated to Russia for nearly a century, and then immigrated to the Great Plains of the United States.

My family owned a lumber yard and hardware store. All of our store clerks were bilingual in German, since most of the farmers only spoke German, and many of the contractors preferred German for their daily needs. Although my family was also of Germanic origin -- we came from Switzerland in the mid-nineteenth century -- we had abandoned our language nearly a century earlier. My father had to make do with what he called "kitchen German."

My best childhood friend came from a German-speaking family. Although his parents were fully bilingual, his grandparents much preferred German. There were kids in my class who spoke a very heavily German accented English, even though they were third generation Americans. In spite of being surrounded by German, it just never found its way into the language center of my brain, except for a few stock phrases, and (sadly) swear words.

As a result of a quirk of fate, my father had begun travelling in Mexico when he was in college, in the late 1930s. My parents honeymooned in Mexico, and in the early 1950s we began to vacation in Mexico every year at Christmastime. As a result, from a very young age, I was also introduced to Spanish, and being a small child immersed in the language, I began to pick it up, in a manner that never happened with German for me.

Growing up in a multilingual environment was a gift to me, and certainly affected how I view the world. So it felt natural to concentrate on language during my university studies. I served as an assistant instructor of Spanish and went on to pick up Nahuatl (the Aztec language) as I studied early colonial Latin America earning my doctorate. It was an interesting challenge to learn a complex language like Nahuatl as an adult, compared to how seemingly simple it had been to pick up Spanish when I was a boy.

Growing up in a multilingual environment is very beneficial for the intellectual development of a child. Folks used to think that if a child grew up in a multilingual home, the child would suffer from never achieving true fluency in either language, or perhaps confusing one language for the other. Modern research has proven just the opposite. Children keep track of languages very efficiently. Rather than diminishing their language skills, it enhances them. This might be because different languages force the brain to perceive reality and describe it in different manners. This confirms the old saw: "The brain is a muscle that needs to be exercised."

My wife and I saw this first-hand. Our older son was raised in a bilingual environment, learning both Spanish and English from infancy. When he was a toddler, we had great difficulty when he spoke to us in Spanish, because neither of us had learned Spanish baby talk. Folks around us had to interpret for us. As a Spanish teacher myself, it was very exciting to hear our son make exactly the same grammatical errors that his little friends did; errors which a native English speaker would not usually commit when learning Spanish, but perfectly in line with language development in Spanish. His Spanish skills have gone on to serve him very well in adulthood.

At SUNY Potsdam, the College has as a definitive goal that our campus community will reflect the diversity of the world in which we live. There are clear advantages to studying another language, particularly given the emphasis on strong communication in our global economy. With SUNY Potsdam's strong liberal arts and sciences core, students study languages such as French, Spanish, Arabic and Mohawk. They also have the opportunity to immerse themselves through travel courses and study abroad opportunities, with 450 international education programs to choose from among SUNY offerings each year. My wife and I believe that international education is so important that we established a scholarship fund to help undergraduates study abroad. As part of our commitment to helping students achieve their goals, this is one of several scholarship funds dedicated toward international study at the College.

Language exposure can also come from living and learning in a diverse environment. At SUNY Potsdam, we host 160 international students from more than 20 countries each year, many of whom hail from Canada, South Korea and China. In addition, a Francophone experience is a short drive away, with Quebec just across the border here in Northern New York. Many of our faculty and staff come from around the world, and speak their native language at home. Their children bring new words into the Potsdam schools, just as my German speaking peers taught me so much back in Kansas.

The study of foreign languages is simply the gift that keeps on giving. It provides a person with multiple perspectives from which to view the world. It actually strengthens the mind. It allows a person to travel to other countries, which is also a great gift. Most importantly, having a common language erases borders. It allows one to put others at ease.

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