Parlez-vous français? ¿Habla español? Ξερεις να μιλας ελληνικα? Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Parla italiano?An bhfuil Gaeilge agat? Знаеш ли български език? Fince konuşuyor musun? Sen Türkçe konuşmayı biliyor musun?
If that paragraph leaves you wanting to say, “That’s all Greek to me,” don’t worry—you’re not alone. The European Union is (currently) comprised of 27 countries: all of them have a national language (the EU as an entity has 23 official languages); many of these countries have regional languages or dialects; and there are those who even have slang patois that have essentially become languages of their own. On top of all that, because of the great ethnic and cultural diversity within each of the countries as well as the interconnectedness of all these countries with one another, there are actually more than 200 languages spoken throughout Europe. How do you bridge political, economic, social, and cultural divides when the mere act of communicating in the same language might not even be possible?
As someone who taught Spanish for fifteen years and now works as a tour guide around the world, that question continues to shape how and why I travel, my inquisitiveness about cultures that are different from my own, how I try to better understand what’s happening in my own country (USA), and how I reflect on my own beliefs and values while striving to building maintain respect for those of others.
Having been born in San Diego, California, and growing up as the daughter of well-educated Filipino immigrants who worked in the fields of immunology and healthcare, I was raised to work hard, to value education and educators, to give back to my community, and to do whatever I could and should to be deserving of the rights and privileges afforded to me as an American citizen. Equally as important, my parents taught me to value and celebrate our Filipino heritage (as an adult, I became president of the Filipino-American Association of San Diego North County, an organization which my parents help to found in the 1970s).
In the ’70s, the education paradigm in the US suggested that a child who tried to learn more than one language at once would be hindered in both—as though a child couldn’t handle that much information and would be eternally confused. We now know, of course, that children’s brains are like sponges, absorbing as much as possible, and that early childhood is the ideal time for creating new neurological pathways for language development. But at the time, my mom and dad thought that if they taught me Tagalog (Filipino) at home while I was using English in all other aspects of my life, I would end up linguistically and educationally disadvantaged.
But I’m an only child. As a kid, I wanted as much interaction with other people as possible. I never wanted to be left out of a conversation, especially if it was a discussion that could possibly affect me (Is food about to be served? Do I have to go somewhere with my parents now? Are we going to celebrate my auntie’s birthday? Am I getting grounded?). That meant that when my parents spoke in Tagalog with friends, relatives, or each other, I listened…intently. Filipino words and gestures were always around me even if I was never formally taught the language. As a result, I understand the language nearly fluently, can say numerous expressions (especially the bad words—shhh, don’t tell my mom), I can correctly point with my lips like any self-respecting Filipino/a, but I have to respond in English.
Looking back, I realized that developing this listening skill is what layed the foundation for my love of languages and my desire to understand others and to be understood.
Because I have Spanish heritage in my family, it seemed the natural thing to do was pick Spanish as my “second” (“third”?) language as my Fine Arts elective in high school. I went on to major in it at university and became a high school Spanish teacher. When I first traveled to Europe in 2000, I became so smitten by France and all things French, especially the language. I made it a point to return to France and travel elsewhere in Europe every year thereafter. It wasn’t just about seeing or being in these places—it was about finding ways to connect with the cultures I was encountering. I wanted to be able to learn more about the people whose country I was visiting and to show respect by learning to communicate in their native tongue.
Regardless of where I was traveling, the more I engaged in the local language, the more fun I had, the more enriching the experiences became, and the more invested I became in the cultures and the people. Their histories and contemporary situations became more important to me. I found more and more similarities between their experiences and that of my own society, and I learned to value the differences by trying to understand the cultural and historical reasons behind them. By showing respect for how others communicate, I was better able to celebrate their humanity, their history, and their culture.
After that first trip to France, I took night classes at my local community college and eventually did two summer language programs in Paris, took a two-year sabbatical to study French at the University of Washington, and earned a degree in French. After becoming a tour guide, my frequent travels in Italy and Germany encouraged me to learn as much conversational Italian and German as I could. Without the benefit of formal training, I forced myself listen to what people were saying in those languages. I tried to understand through context, repeated words and phrases to match rhythm, intonation, and accent. And as expected, the more I practiced, the better I got. The more effort I put in, the more success I got out of it. I still make tons of mistakes (heck, I still make mistakes when I speak English!), but those errors give me opportunities to learn how to improve. And when I make progress, not only does my sense of accomplishment fill me with confidence, it encourages me to continue learning more.
To this day, wherever my journeys take me, I try to learn the basics of the language—equivalents for hello, how are you, excuse me, please, thank you, goodbye etc. In my Notes app on my iPhone, I keep lists dedicated to specific languages as quick references for various useful phrases. The doors that swing wide open when a traveler uses basic courtesies in the local language are countless. Gratitude for the visitor manifests in smiles, in patience, in attentiveness, in kindness. And those are some of the moments of connection that make travel so worthwhile.
The value of language and respect for linguistic diversity matters so much in the European Union that in 2001, they, along with the Council of Europe (the continent’s major human rights organization comprised of 47 member countries), established the European Year of Languages—a program aimed at the general public to encourage multilingualism by fostering interest intercultural understanding; supporting personal and professional opportunities in political and economic realms; and working to eradicate racism, xenophobia, and intolerance. Bridging cultural divides requires the desire to understand other perspectives and a recognition that it takes diligent work on many sides to find new and effective ways of communicating with one another.
With the success of that program, the Council of Europe declared September 26 to be the European Day of Languages. The chief objectives of this annual celebration are:
- Alerting the public to the importance of language learning and diversifying the range of languages learnt in order to increase plurilingualism and intercultural understanding;
- Promoting the rich linguistic and cultural diversity of Europe, which must be preserved and fostered;
- Encouraging lifelong language learning in and out of school, whether for study purposes, for professional needs, for purposes of mobility or for pleasure and exchanges.
The EDL website (accessible in 39 languages) features games, a self-evaluation tool for 15 languages, idioms of the world, a handbook of language challenges, and teacher resources. Whether you’re an expert linguist, a novice learner, or are just curious about other languages and cultures, it’s a fun site to explore. And at a time in our world when we are increasingly more isolated and disconnected from one another, the European Day of Languages is an encouraging beacon lighting a path to better communication, connection, and understanding amongst so many cultures.
There are any number of great reasons why you should learn another language. If you want to go a step farther in your own language-learning journey, sites and apps like DuoLingo, Babbel, Rosetta Stone are among the most popular resources. Many colleges and universities offer basic online extension courses available to the public, and their language departments can often connect you with tutors. MeetUp groups can be a fun way to practice language in a social situation. Or watch your favorite films on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, or Disney+—either a foreign language film with English subtitles on to work on your listening skills, an English language movie with foreign subtitles on to work on your reading skills, or a foreign language movie with that language subtitled to work on both learning modes.
And if you just want to get some basic, conversational language under your belt for travel or for fun, you can watch my Beginning Spanish, French, and Italian for Travelers classes online anytime. You’ll find that I make mistakes even in these videos (nerves and typos), but just like when you’re traveling, it’s about making the attempt and having fun with it. People can can be surprisingly gracious and forgiving when you just try.