News / Opinion



Recalling the time when my grandma visited the United States in the early spring of 2013, she arrived at JFK and we went to receive her. She can speak only her mother tongue, Telugu, and besides a spattering of English words, is monolingual. Even 2 hours after the flight landed, we couldn’t see her coming out. We wondered if it was an issue with her Visa, then we worried that it could be her health and we got anxious if she missed her flight completely! Upon checking at the airline counter, we understood that there was this elderly lady who had refused the wheelchair assistance as she was waiting for her family to come and fetch her at the baggage claim. True to our suspicion, it turned out to be my grandmother. We found her in an animated conversation with three English speaking people trying to tell them that her family is coming to meet her right there, while they insisted that she will have to get out of that area and move out through the exit to meet anyone. She was elated to see us and told them in her language that she was right all along. We later learnt that she followed our instructions verbatim. “We will meet you right after you get hold of your luggage.” Funny as this episode might sound, it brings to focus the importance of being able to communicate in a common language.

There are many reasons why people need to learn other languages. They are: promoting  international trade, increasing their chances of being employed, touring interesting places, conducting diplomatic dealings, meeting extended family and making academic interactions, to name a few. Take the case of booming technology jobs and the call center support jobs in India, covering business needs in most of Europe, US, Asia and in any other developed nation in other continents. For these jobs to be of any use, the workers in India need to speak the local languages in these countries, often times learning the local dialect, mannerism, and culture. Another reason to be bilingual is to be employed meaningfully. The U.S government needs on-going and relevant intelligence by intercepting suspicious calls, interpreting coded transmissions, interacting with certain people to gather motives etc.

There are many cases where people who speak just English got in trouble as they could not explain what they had in their mind. Let us take the case of the American exchange student, Amanda Knox and the murder trial she had to face in Italy as the potential guilty party. She ended up being imprisoned for a long time till she could find lawyers who were qualified enough to speak the local language and understand her side of the story correctly. Take also the case of the American student who was imprisoned in North Korea for a foolish attempt to steal a national flag outside his hotel. Imagine how better off he would have been in explaining his lapse of judgement and pleading that that he will never resort to such measures again. There are also innumerable cases of English speakers who by not knowing basic Mandarin, are treated unfairly and cheated of their money in mainland China when on their business trips.

Being bilingual has many advantages in school and or the community. Besides, it is scientifically proven that learning a language other than one’s own mother tongue can grow the brain function significantly, so much so that it prevents onset of dementia and helps in fighting diseases like Alzheimer’s in old age. In the article by Viorica Marian, PhD whose research focuses on bilingualism/multilingualism and the brain’s abilities, says that people who are bilingual have brains that have better attention and task-switching capacities than the brain of a monolingual. Being bilingual also boosts your social life as you are not only limited to a circle of people who speak English. Towards this end, many schools and educational institutions foster learning of a second language. Our school, JP Stevens, makes it paramount to have one language for at least two years, even as they recommend three. Many countries like France, Germany and China sponsor funding in the US and other nations to encourage people to learn their language. I would like to share an experience that convinced me about this. I once saw a family of Hispanic people who did not know the way around my community. I was able to direct them to where they wanted to go, I could understand the joke they made and even wished them well, all because of the Spanish I learn at school.

Language helps in appreciating cultures, connecting and building relationships around the world. Even a knowing a few polite phrases in many languages can change the tenor in a room. Monolinguals conversing only with the English-fluent, or machines, lose the important human touch and can’t learn or work as effectively as those chatting easily with native speakers and reading local newspapers. Moreover, English dominance isn’t guaranteed. Far from fragmenting, Chinese language Web content is ballooning – and may soon surpass English content by volume. Arabic, Spanish and Portuguese are all unifying as globally popular Web sites and TV shows pull together dialects. Simply put, the only choice we have is: which language do we learn?

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