First let me just say, this is a cross-post from my business (Word Wizards Linguistic Agency’s) blog….
Have you ever wondered how sweet life would be if everyone was tolerant? Maybe you’ve thought about how much easier it would be to end the world’s wars if people understood the ‘enemy’ perspective? That’d be a massive step toward world peace for sure. But there are hurdles, so very many hurdles.
Those same hurdles are the same ones that I’ve managed to get around, and everyone else should aspire to dodge them too. For me it started when I was eight years old. You see, my parents decided to sign up to bring a foreign exchange student into our home. Yeah, some person from some other country, somewhere else in the world was coming to my tiny little town nestled in the hills below the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee. And consider for a moment that this was back in 1988 – the world was a very different place in 1988 than it is now. There was a huge wall dividing Berlin; East Germany stayed on the eastern side of the wall and West Germany stayed on their side. Then, there was the U.S.S.R. that took up a huge chunk of eastern Europe and parts of Asia. Just think for those of us studying world geography in 1988 we didn’t have to learn about Ukraine, Tajikistan, Belarus, Georgia (the country not the U.S. state), and so many others because they didn’t exist as separate countries until the fall of the U.S.S.R in the early 1990’s. And my world view started changing with one teenage girl that came to live with my family from Switzerland when I was eight years old.
Ironically that year at the local high school, they also had another exchange student arrive from what was then, West Germany. The two exchange students made friends and frequented my house and me being a curious eight year old, soaked up as much as I could from them. They both sort of adopted me as their little sister, and I started eavesdropping on their conversations they had in German. They busted me, but instead of getting angry they started teaching me. I was eight years old and started to learn German. They gifted me books (these I still have) from Germany and Switzerland of German phrases and books on German culture and Swiss culture. I was the only person in my elementary school class that could greet people in German, ask where certain things were, and talk about my family. All of these things I could do in GERMAN! Not just English. German wasn’t enough though and my family’s Swiss exchange student introduced me to Italian too.
Italian was slightly harder for me, but I still learned. Soon I was basic phrasing in three languages. THREE! And I was only 8 years old. Sadly, the two exchange students had to go home, but I never got over my curiosity about East and West Germany and Switzerland. When the Berlin Wall came down shortly thereafter, I think it hit me harder than my classmates because I KNEW about the Wall. I watched Tom Brokaw of NBC News standing there at the Wall as chunks of it fell down, and I could read some of the German protest signs. I could understand some of the German phrases the protesters were shouting. It was November 9, 1989. I was nine years old and I understood. I understood better than anyone else in my class because I was aware of the cultural and lingual differences.
It didn’t stop with those first two exchange students either. A year or two later, one of my sister’s friends had an exchange student come and stay with her family from Argentina. This newcomer from Argentina visited our house often as well, and you guessed it my already curious mind soaked up everything I could about Argentina, the culture and the Spanish language. While she never taught me Spanish, I decided to work on it myself and I was ten years old. After I discovered that I could learn this stuff on my own – I set out on a mission. I decided to ask for a French/English dictionary for Christmas that year.
To this day people from so many walks of life have crossed my path. I’ve had Cuban and Mexican people in my house. My old university Spanish teacher asked me to help a Tajik study abroad student assimilate. I helped a foreign guy in one of my international relations classes at the university catch up. I found out later he was from Saudi Arabia. By the way, this guy visited my house on several occasions and even taught me how to write a few basic phrases in Arabic. I have collected so many foreign language dictionaries and books I have crates of them in my basement. My Kindle has more foreign language books on it than English language. I routinely change the language on my smartphone into something random.
My daughter carries on conversations with a penpal of hers from Russia. I still chat with my penpals from Russia as well. One of the most rewarding experiences I can remember for my daughter was allowing her to talk on the phone with the daughter of my Moscow-based penpals. Their daughter was around 4 years old and my daughter was 5, and even though my daughter didn’t speak Russian and their daughter didn’t speak English at that time; they carried on a conversation. Interestingly enough, today my daughter’s penpal is the same little girl she chatted with eleven years ago.
I type before you today and I speak seven languages almost eight, and I can read and understand twelve different languages.
- English (native)
- Russian (just shy of fluent; those idioms – YIKES!!)
- German (fluent)
- Swedish (creeping up on fluency)
- Portuguese (advanced)
- Spanish (creeping up on fluency)
- French (advanced)
- Italian (creeping up on fluency)
- Dutch (read – moderate speaking)
- Norwegian (read – some speaking)
- Greek (read)
- Polish (read)
It’s strange to think that this all started with a decision by my parents to open our home to a foreign exchange student from Switzerland. But it is a skill of mine and that’s why I’m opening the doors of Word Wizard Linguistic Agency, or WWL. It’s time for me to help spread the fun of multiculturalism and create, or tutor, up and coming multilingual people. It’s time for me to help close the language and culture gaps worldwide. Because the more we understand each other, the smaller the world grows.