Más que sólo palabras: appreciating linguistic diversity

by Maria Paula Garcia / Beacon Correspondent • November 6, 2014

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As a result of globalization, bilingualism allows for novel communication.
As a result of globalization, bilingualism allows for novel communication.

Detrás de cada lenguaje existe una historia. Cada lenguaje es sinónimo a una cultura, un pasado. And even if you didn’t learn enough from your high school Spanish class to understand the entire meaning of the previous two sentences, or could recognize just a couple of words, this paragraph alone contains two languages that come together to form meaning. Un significado que trasciende límites.

For 18 years, I lived in Barranquilla, Colombia and was educated in an American school. Even though we learned Spanish and English, I was always taught that the two should remain separate. In fact, my American teachers would punish us with after-school detention if we spoke Spanish in the classroom. These instructors were very nice, but they took these measures because they viewed the separation of language as normal; after all, it is what we are accustomed to.

My view of my own bilingualism changed last year when I came to Emerson and took a bilingual writing class with Eric Sepenoski and and Tamera Marko. This two-semester class, which fulfills the first-year writing requirement, offered me the opportunity to write in both languages interchangeably for the first time, and learn about other dialects and cultures from my 17 classmates.

En este ambiente educativo tuve la oportunidad de expresar mis ideas como realmente fluyen en mi mente sin distorsionar su significado. I learned that even though roughly half of my classmates had lived in the United States for at least a couple of years, they interacted with many other languages and cultures in their lives. The other half, international students, spoke many languages as well.

In our classroom, we wrote and spoke in a potpourri of languages and cultures, from Hindi to Hebrew. At first, it seemed odd and uncomfortable to share our thoughts with others who wrote in, and understood, different languages, but we got used to it. 

The definition of language is complex, especially in the context of culture and communication. In the simplest terms, “language” encompasses the words we use to communicate with others. But this definition seems too vague, for language surpasses the boundaries of the lexicon. Cada una de las 1,000, o más, lenguas es especial, distinta y simboliza una cultura, una historia única. Indeed, each tongue has a different story to tell, but this doesn’t mean we should discriminate one from the other. We should allow and encourage languages to merge, just as cultures have through time.

The United States is a culturally diverse nation, and in regards to its linguistic diversity, there is a common misconception that this country is primarily monolingual. Indeed, in 2011 the United States Census Bureau did report that only 21 percent of Americans spoke a language other than English at home. But that doesn’t mean that other languages aren’t used in different contexts, like at schools, in jobs, and on the streets. El hecho de que no hablemos otros idiomas en nuestros hogares, no significa que no los escuchemos constantemente día a día. Even at Emerson, where only 4.7 percent of undergraduates are from other countries, according to the school’s latest statistics, many of the food service and maintenance workers around campus are Spanish speakers. Listening to other languages on a daily basis is unavoidable, especially in Boston, where 35 percent of the population spoke a language other than English, according to a 2009 report from the Boston Redevelopment Authority. 

Limiting our communication to solely one language is outdated. Vivimos en un mundo en donde the borderlines se han difuminado, las culturas se han mezclado y ya no existe tal cosa como la “pureza.” Taking into account the cultural variety present today in the United States, it is absurd to insist on the use of one language when the thoughts of those in our community wander through multiple ones. It is true that we all don’t share the same culture; our heritages, too, are different, and so are the languages in which we think. 

Sentir otros idiomas nos abre muchas puertas en el mundo de hoy. Pero más importante aún, no hay que ignorar el hecho de que abrirnos hacia otros dialectos es necesario en la actualidad. We should not ignore the fact that in today’s world, cultures are not stagnant, but rather constantly mixing and converging with each other. But we often fail to recognize that culture goes hand-in-hand with language. Tolerating other languages in our daily lives is synonymous to tolerating other cultures as well.

Recognizing others’ languages is not only a symbol of cultural awareness, but also a symbol to the openness we have towards learning from others that differ from us. The world’s cultural makeup is changing, and simple contexts such as a bilingual writing class at Emerson are an indicator that we are moving towards an integration of language and culture, rather than a separation. Spanglish, Chinglish, Portuñol, and Franglais exist, y debemos reconocerlo

Being multilingual, or simply being surrounded by different languages, es fascinante and beneficial—it can help you understand those little details que se pierden en las traducciones. El lenguaje es como un portal mágico que nos brinda un lente a través del cual podemos comprender a otros. But most importantly, cuando te das las oportunidad de experimentar otro idioma, te das la oportunidad de trascender paradigmas y llegar al corazón de otra cultura.