So Many Reasons to Learn a Language

Do you know what this means?


Does it scare you?

Apparently, hearing this word for those who do not understand it scares some airline employees enough to kick someone who says it off an airplane. This was not an isolated incident as kicking innocent Muslims off airplanes happens far too frequently.

Communication is the key to understanding. Unfortunately, English speaking nations tend to be the worst at learning foreign languages. In the United States, most students who study a foreign language only do so for 2 years, which pales in comparison to the 9 years which most European Union students study a foreign language.

As this infographic by Middlebury Interactive Languages shows, learning a foreign language has many practical advantages besides the obvious ability to communicate with others who do not speak your native tongue, including:

  • Higher college placement test scores in reading, writing and math;
  • Higher rates of pay; and
  • Translation and Interpretation are among the fastest growing careers.

Remarkably, despite these advantages, the percentage of US elementary and middle schools offering foreign language instruction has fallen dramatically.


On a recent visit home from college, my son wisely commented that he believed that a lot of fear in the world would be reduced if people only understood each other’s languages. He is currently studying  both Hebrew and Arabic in an effort to bridge and reduce the fears that exist between Jews and Arabs. He made note of how important it was that he could understand both the Spanish and Arabic on this sign in our front yard.


While it is true that no one can learn every language in the world, it is also true that even if one is not fluent in a language, when one travels or meets people who speak another language, it goes a long way to find out how to be courteous by learning how to say, please and thank you in the native language.

Since last November’s election, our President and his allies are fanning the flames of xenophobia, highlighting Islamophobia and deportation of many of our neighbors with Latin American roots. But each of us can do our part to counter these fears by learning even a few words of Spanish and Arabic (or other languages of your neighbors and co-workers). For my part, while not fluent, I have studied and speak Spanish, Hebrew and German.

Oh, you want to know what that Arabic word above means? Inshallah literally translated means, “God willing.” It is often used at the end of a sentence to add a hopeful note of success to whatever good wishes the speaker is conveying, such as, “our team will win tomorrow’s game, inshallah.”

Indeed, the Spanish word, ojalá is borrowed from the Arabic inshallah and means the same thing: God willing.

So, the next time you hear a word you do not understand, rather than sinking into fear, you may discover that the speaker is sending you good wishes from above.


For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.


Speaking another Language

Like most other Jews, the legacy of over 2000 years of diaspora, including expulsions and flight from many nations, means that I have relatives in many other countries. When I was 12 years old, I travelled to Mexico City to attend my cousin Susy’s wedding, and that is when I met my many Mexican relatives, with whom I still stay in close contact. It was during this trip, that I made a commitment to learn Spanish, and while I am not fluent, I can carry on a conversation and make myself understood when necessary. Perhaps the highest compliment of my Spanish came when I travelled to Costa Rica, and a local told me I spoke Spanish like a Mexican.

Due to the world-wide dominance of the English language, too many Americans fail to learn another language. Given that the US now has more Spanish speakers than Spain and more than any country other than Mexico, sound education policy would require all schoolchildren to learn Spanish starting at an early age when children’s brains absorb new languages much more easily. In fact the Index for Human Development ranks Spanish as the second most important language on earth, after English. Sadly, instead, have a long history of states who want to pass xenophobic English-only laws instead. This trend is exacerbated by a drop in those studying foreign languages in the United States.


Yesterday, we were having some work done on our bathroom. The workers handed me an invoice and I asked them if they wanted me to write them a check right then or send it to the office. One of them responded by saying, “no hablo inglés.” When I was immediately able to switch to Spanish and ask the same question in Spanish, he broke out in a big smile and simply told me to send it to the office. That led to him telling me that he was surprised I spoke Spanish. I told him I had Mexican cousins. He asked me where and the conversation continued and we both became more human to each other.

Speaking someone else’s language has so many benefits, from business transactions to simply getting from point A to point B. Obviously, nobody can learn every language in the world, but when traveling, it is at least common courtesy to learn how to say please and thank you in the language of the country you are visiting.

However, the most important thing about learning someone else’s language is that you are demonstrating that you recognize their humanity as equal to yours and that recognition helps connect each of us to each other. The stronger the connection, the more likely that the human family will help each other rather than hate, fight and often kill each other.

So, instead of English only laws, declining support for teaching foreign languages and worst of all, building walls along our border, let us move instead towards requiring learning Spanish as a second language laws to bring us closer together.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.