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Speaking in tongues

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, January 18, 2007

Most of us probably spent our winter break crying ourselves to sleep over the bowl game, keeping tabs on the 24-hour coverage of the Rosie/Trump feud, or watching re-runs of “That’s So Raven.” What, that’s not just me, right? Anybody?

But while we Americans were busy returning Christmas gifts and revising our rash New Year’s resolutions, those industrious Canadians were at it again. Scientists from our Neighbor to the North announced last week the results of a research project which found that people who are fully bilingual, by using both languages on a day-to-day basis throughout their lives, can delay the onset of dementia by up to four years. Apparently, the extra effort needed to speak two separate languages boosts blood to the brain and exercises your nerve connections, two important defenses against the debilitating elderly disease.

This probably comes as a shock to many of us in the good old U.S. of A., where our official language is American and we eat our cheeseburgers sans mayo, thank you very much. Oops, I slipped and used a foreign word there. Mea culpa.

As it turns out, knowing a second language can actually do more for you than merely teach you dirty phrases or random gibberish, such as “the monkeys are stealing my pineapple underpants” (although things like that are fun to say). Know that second language well, and you could be on the happy end of some solid health benefits. Your non-native tongue can help sharpen your brain and keep it in good shape, like seniors doing water aerobics at the Y. Except for your brain, not your wrinkly thighs.

I always thought it would have been pretty awesome to be raised in a bilingual family, or at least a family who used a different form of speech than the standard. But really, even if you’re born and raised American, it shouldn’t set you back. There’s no reason why you can’t practice another language and put your brain to good use. Here at Notre Dame we have language requirements, but the end of schooling is no reason to give up your study of foreign communication. If you have never tried learning a language, no age is too late to dive right in. Give yourself more of a mental hurdle to leap than a daily sudoku.

Besides all those health benefits, moreover, knowing a second language makes you look cool. Of course, we all know there is an entire world of academics opened up to you with a second language – reading philosophy in Greek, literary theory in French, theological documents in Latin, Chinese history in Mandarin – the list goes on. Nothing compares to the original. But set all that aside for a minute, and picture yourself at a chic French restaurant. Knowing a second language, you wouldn’t have to blubber while trying to get yourself “some of that chicken cordon bl-… bl-…” and just settling for “the chicken.” Instead, you can confidently order your chicken cordon bleu dish, impress your girlfriend and rescue the date from doltish disaster, show her your intelligent side, wind up married with four kids and a waterfront villa, and live happily ever after.

Sometimes we can get annoyed when people speak in their own language. It creates a barrier between them and you, which makes it all the more rewarding when you breach it by learning the language. But once again, this is America – no mayo on our burgers, and sure as heck no other language. Need I reiterate? The terrible price we all pay for having to comply with the saturation of other languages in our modern world takes its toll. We need to force our eyes past all that Spanish text printed on signs, and the extra step needed to select your language over the phone or on an internet site that, well just eats up a lot of our precious time.

The “official language” discussion opens up a whole new bag of worms, presenting a prickly and difficult subject. So often in this country of immigrants, we focus so much on unity – for instance, through a common language – that we shun any effort to preserve things that may impede that assimilation. And “diversity” has become such a catch-all term, devoid of any real meaning, that we consider discussion of it trite and cliché. But the next time we get mad in Wal-Mart while shopping for our ketchup and mustard and overhear a discussion in a language we can’t understand, we can remember that maybe we should see past our own limitations and put in some work to learn another language ourselves. The existence of one unifying language does not mean it has to be our only language.

If you can’t appreciate that, remember that using a second language regularly will help your brain later on in life. Most importantly of all, it can bring you happiness, companionship and endless joy. And that waterfront villa.

James Dechant is a junior studying abroad in Rome this semester. Questions, complaints, and rude remarks can be sent to jdechant@nd.edu

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.