I had a dream this morning about my paternal great aunts and uncles. (In real life, they have all passed away.) In the dream, I was trying to interview them. The family was seated in great aunt Emma’s living room. We were waiting for her to read a letter from our relatives in Sweden. Because dreams are often just snippets of memory, that was the entire dream. Then I woke up.
The mini dream reminded me that great aunt Emma was the only family member to retain and cultivate our Swedish culture. She was the only one who could read and write Swedish. Emma was the source of my love for Sweden and ultimately, languages.
The Swedish language is not included in many, if any, high school curricula in the United States. This fact was frustrating to me, because I wanted to learn it. Emma didn’t have the time to tutor me, so that wish was put on the back burner. Swedish is a language of which I have only scant knowledge of general grammar and vocabulary.
Meantime, German was one of the languages offered at our high school. I registered for the classes because mom’s side of the family came from Germany. The classes met in the school’s new language lab. Each student sat in a cubical that enabled listening and speaking onto audio tapes. The class soon became one of my favorites.
One of the best takeaways from German is that it enhanced my English language skills. Prior to taking German, my English class grades were mediocre. German caused me to look at English from a different angle. The more German I learned, the better my English report card grades became.
Although it has been many decades since I could last speak and write German fluently, I can still read and comprehend German text. This helps me feel close to my German heritage.
A few years after mom’s death, dad remarried. His new wife, Tippy, was a native of Thailand. I watched dad try to struggle to learn Thai. Despite his best efforts, dad didn’t even have basic, elementary skills. Whenever dad and Tippy vacationed in Thailand, dad had to rely upon Tippy’s rudimentary interpretation skills in order to communicate with the locals.
Meantime, I bought an audiotape based Thai language course, a basic language book, and an English-Thai dictionary. Tippy was unable to help teach me or dad, so my interest in that language flagged. Sometimes I pick up the Thai dictionary and skim through a few words. There is no urgent need for me to know the language, so learning Thai is just another pipe dream.
I’ve long admired the European education system for its efforts to teach multilingual skills to their pupils at an early age. There are many non-European countries that enable people to become at least bilingual.
Many times, knowledge of a particular language is the only way to know about specific aspects of a certain culture. Most languages have words that have no exact counterpart in English. When you begin to not only read and write in a language, but also think in that language, a whole new, exciting world opens up.
I can still remember the first day that I realized I was thinking in German. It was a game changer. I felt closer to my long-lost ancestors and to Germany. It was an intimacy that could not be experienced through English-only communication.
I wish I could have followed through on Swedish lessons at a much younger age. Without proficient Swedish skills, I feel a yawning gap in my love for Scandinavia and my Swedish family. I sometimes wish my great grandparents had not been in such a hurry to push our European culture aside.
These are a few of the reasons why I’m an advocate for the preservation of mother tongues, the world over. I think it’s important to encourage multilingual education and linguistic diversity. Not only does this learning help people appreciate their own heritages, but it enables people to develop and encourage exploration of other cultural traditions. After all, the more we know about other cultures and peoples, the greater our capacity for dialogue, understanding, and acceptance.