Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Bilingualism is Good for Your Mind!

In America, Spanish is pretty useful as a second language, and I'm damn proud to say it's mine, although I could really use a few brush-up classes. Not only that, learning a language is fun. At the very least, you can learn ways to curse at people and not have them understand a word you're saying.

It's also beneficial for your mental health. According to a recent study done in Canada, learning a second language and using it during your entire life can delay the onset of dementia by as many as 4 years. That's a pretty important reason for someone like me, with a family history of Alzheimer's.

Peter Payne, being an American living in Japan with a bi-cultural family, is ensuring his children become equally proficient in both English and Japanese (warning... that link has some sexy pics towards the bottom). He does it with a simple family rule that at home: they watch movies only in English. Those are some very lucky kids! They will have the best of both languages and a larger well of cultural experience to draw from than most people, regardless of nationality.

In my time here, I've met quite a few people like that, who seem to have two language operating systems in their minds, and I'm always impressed and even a bit jealous.

There's a Japanese woman who works at Down Under Bar who can go from perfect Nihongo to Aussie-accented native level English from sentence to sentence, depending on their customer mix. Some of our upper level students mix Japanese and English with fluent grace... or else rude good humor... in my classes.

So it really, really irks me that in my home country, where we constantly call ourselves the greatest nation in the world, we're not pushing foreign language education enough. In all the hysteria about immigrants not learning English and assimilating, we're ignoring a vast population of complacent, self-satisfied people who speak only English, know only English and have absolutely no interest in learning foreign languages or about foreign cultures.

Here in Japan, millions spend their spare time learning a second language, usually English. So much so that the topic of debate at a recent debate meet one of our top students participated in was, "Should Japan Adopt English as its Official Second Language?"

Despite a number of loan words borrowed from languages other than English, it already is the unofficial second language. It's pervasive, at least in small amounts. You'll be watching tv and a commercial for a J-Pop band's new release will announce... well... "NEW RELEASE!" or "BIG-U HIT-O!"

Recently, as part of the New Year's celebrations, stores and boutiques have been offering "The Bargain" (a popular name for seasonal clearance sales, i.e., "Zaza The Bargain," Zaza City's yearly event). I was watching the Martin Scorcese film The Aviator and at the end, the hosts talked about it in Japanese, peppering their discussion with English expressions like "Main theme," and "Who am I?"

It's not always perfect English, and usually involves what we call "katakana pronunciation," (consonants must be followed by vowels here, which sometimes adds a syllable or two to something that might otherwise be easily understood as English), but there it is.

There's a joke that goes:

What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call a person who speaks one language? An American.

I guess I come from the standpoint where I can't imagine why anyone would choose to be ignorant, or why someone wouldn't want to learn as much as he or she can about the world around them. Yes, people who intend to become United States citizens should make an effort to learn English even if just for the convenience and security (the way I'm struggling to learn Japanese here in Japan), but native English speakers in the United States should also learn Spanish, or French, or Chinese, or Japanese or any language that interests them.

They should do what many of my Japanese students do- just pick a country and learn as much about it as they can. Take a few trips there. Expand their horizons. One of the few positives about our old military draft was it took country boys, like my dad, and mingled them with a bunch of guys from other parts and cultures of their home country, then sent them overseas to experience foreign lands.

Until the end of his life, my father talked about how beautiful the United Kingdom was, despite still containing quite a bit of recently destroyed real estate left over from WWII. He often remarked about the neatly trimmed lawns running down to the riversides. As a farmer's son, that really impressed him.

Television and movies make poor substitutes. Too often they're filled with hateful, racist stereotypes. Just recently I've become increasingly troubled with the preponderance of ridiculous Asian imagery in comic books... nothing but martial arts, yakuza gunfights, sword-blazing modern day ninja wars and Dragon Ladies with predatory hyper-sexualism.

It's not that these ideas can't be fun when placed in perspective, but too often they replace the real thing in our imaginations- they contain nothing of the classical music-loving high school girl, the young guy really into motorcycles, the older woman who spends her free time reading books to schoolchildren, or the woman who takes one day a week to teach junior high kids how to play the o-koto (Japanese harp).

If more Americans got their heads out of their Yankee Doodle asses and started looking around, really learning about the world at large, stop assuming that if you scratch a foreigner you'll find an American inside, we'd be less likely to misjudge the cultures with which we're dealing and get into horrific messes like the current one that shall remain nameless in this blog.

Who knows... maybe that elusive goal of world peace might actually become a reality. Or are wanting to be informed, smart and at peace with the world no longer considered American values?

No comments: