| by Kyrie O’Connor

In The News

Philip Crowther's picture!

Article featured in the Houston Chronicle on April 29, 2022.

In February, a video from Kyiv went viral, but it had nothing to do with war and death. It showed an Associated Press correspondent, Philip Crowther, giving the same TV report in six languages: English, Luxembourgish, Spanish, Portuguese, French and German.

Americans, especially, saw this as some kind of marvel. Crowther — who also speaks some Catalan, just because — got a flurry of TV interviews and even marriage proposals.

But that’s in part because the continental United States, flanked by oceans and sharing only two borders, is the global oddity. Worldwide, somewhat fuzzy statistics say that between 60 percent and 75 percent of humans know at least two languages. The country of South Africa alone has 11 official languages.

But we’re a nation of immigrants, you cry. We must know something. Several years ago, Hans Boas, a professor of Germanic studies and linguistics at the University of Texas, explained to me why that has limited value. Immigrants speak their language of origin, of course, and pass it to their children. The children, in turn, may pass some on to their children. But by the time the original immigrants have great-grandchildren, that language is lost.

Houston’s reputation as a polyglot city is well-earned, but how much cross-cultural language learning really takes place? If you’re not of Vietnamese ancestry, how many actual words of Vietnamese do you know?

While many countries start language learning early, Americans often make do with two years of half-hearted high school Spanish, and maybe a semester in college, if it’s required. That’s barely enough time to learn to read a menu.

(An anecdote advocating for learning how to read a foreign menu: Knowing the French word “écureuil” once saved me from a disastrous Paris dinner order. Because even a French squirrel is, after all, a squirrel.)

Steve Snyder is a vice president of academic affairs at Middlebury College in Vermont and dean of the Middlebury Language Schools. The 12 language schools offer full-immersion (no speaking English, on penalty of getting kicked out) summer programs.

Snyder, for his part, speaks and reads French and is so accomplished in Japanese that he translates Japanese novels. (Alas, the classical Greek he took in college “is all gone,” he says.)

Many parents seem to have caught on to the developmental advantages that early second-language learning confers on children, Snyder says, but it’s good for adults as well. “Adult language learning is about taking on a new identity,” he says, allowing the language learner to step outside his or her native culture and encounter the kind of differences that can turn a student into a global citizen.

The Middlebury program emphasizes not just verb tenses but both language and cultural immersion, which he calls “getting out of your own head.”

Not to mention that it’s fun. “Traveling is a whole different experience when you can do it in the local language,” Snyder says.

If none of this is enough to make you crank up the language tapes on your morning commute, would you do it for your health? The mental gymnastics involved in language-switching, studies show, can deepen your cognitive reserve, potentially staving off dementia for as much as five years.

If none of this persuades you, turn your television on to a news channel. Chances are you’ve seen the Ukranian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, switch almost seamlessly from Russian to Ukranian to English. It’s impossible to say how much that has contributed to his position on the world stage, but it sure hasn’t hurt.

But it’s not just Zelenskyy. Behind him is a seemingly endless parade of officials and advisers, all of whom speak seamless English.

My personal favorite is a former Zelenskyy adviser named Igor Novikov, who is a dead ringer for Jimmy Fallon but probably speaks better English, studding his lightly inflected English with words and idioms such as “a thorn in his side” and “disclaimer” and “first and foremost.”

Here’s how he explained the experience of being suddenly at war: “It’s like being at home playing ‘Call of Duty’ one night and waking up in it the next morning.” Could you explain it any better, even in your native tongue?

We can’t all be Crowther of the Seven Tongues. But in a world full of clueless tourists, maybe strive to be an Igor Novikov.