Monolingual Americans Ski Monkeys

by Frank Riccobono

This is the version of my senior year Originl Oratory speech as performed at the 2006 National Forensics League national tournament in Dallas, TX.

There are two problems with aliens in most science fiction. One: Aliens who have mastered the physics of inter-stellar travel can almost always be defeated by common, every-day, household items. "The aliens are attacking. Quick, get the Jell-O." Second: Most aliens speak better English than we do. "Live long and prosper." Why do aliens speak English? Well, think about it. In an hour-long episode of Star Trek would you rather see Captain Kirk blow up a ship full of Klingons or learn the nuances of the Klingon language? And so you can't say that I didn't teach you anything, if you ever do find yourself captured by Klingons and in desperate need of a bathroom, try saying, "nuqD aq 'oH puchpa' 'e'?" To get around the pesky communication problem, sci-fi authors have employed several techniques to explain why aliens have all seemed to have mastered the English Language. One gimmick is the universal translator, so that (Unintelligible alien gibberish) instantly becomes "I am a little teapot." If all else fails, make, the aliens do all the work: "We have been monitoring your transmissions. By the way, the one you call Britney Spears wa-wa-wee-wa."

Don't panic. This isn't some geeky science-fiction oratory. While sci-fi authors fantasize how easy it would be to communicate with aliens from another planet, the reality is that we Americans can barely communicate with humans from another country. This perception isn't new. There's an old joke that goes something like this: "What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. And what do you call a person who speaks one language? American." According to National Public Radio, less than 10 percent of Americans are bilingual. Unfortunately, unlike in science-fiction, present technology cannot eliminate the need to learn foreign languages and the yo-why-can't-they-talk-like-us approach is as impractical as it is arrogant.

In order to examine the need for Americans to master a second language, in true George Lucas style, I will break the topic into nine episodes. I will start with the middle three, backtrack to the first three, and then skip the last three entirely claiming that I was only going to divide it into six episodes in the first place. Actually, I want to talk about at four things: First, the need for language skills in the work place, second the importance of language in diplomacy and third the failure of our schools to foster linguistic skills. Then at the end of this space opera, we'll discuss where we should go from here.

Episode I: Language in the Workplace

We are operating in a highly competitive job market. These days, knowing a foreign language, especially one in high demand, can open up many opportunities. Larger companies now operate on a global level, and are increasingly expanding into developing countries, like China and India. These days, your co-worker may work across the ocean instead of across the hall. In his recent book, The World is Flat, author Thomas L. Friedman explains that as "[computers] became cheaper...[There] was an explosion of software...that can chop up any piece of work and send one part to Boston, one part to Bangalore, and one part to Beijing.” In order to grow, a company must search for customers and suppliers throughout the world. The inability to communicate with these customers and suppliers will make business relations difficult at best and impossible at worst.

Episode II: Languages of our Leaders

Language barriers can also affect politics and can be harmful to our national security. After the September 11th attacks, the intelligence community found itself at a great disadvantage because for various reasons there were not nearly enough people who understood Arabic and could analyze all the information being gathered. This problem persists to this day and who knows how much valuable intelligence is being missed? Is maleh wa tayyeb lablabi a veiled threat or an innocent comment. Somehow I don't think that "the chick peas are salty and delicious" is cause for us to raise the alert level. Ana la tet kalam al Arabiah sure sounds threatening. Actually, and ironically, it is Arabic for, "I don't speak Arabic."

Proper language is also crucial in diplomacy, but our presidents, vice-presidents, and cabinet members have traditionally not been bilingual. To see just how powerful language can be, let‟s look back to June 26, 1963. President John F. Kennedy was delivering a speech to a large crowd in Berlin. He was able to conclude his speech in German. “Ich bin ein Berliner,” loosely translates to, "I identify with the people of Berlin."‟ Americans often ridicule Kennedy for saying this because the word Berliner also means jelly doughnut. However, to a native speaker, the phrase was correct. The idea could not have been expressed any other way. To this day, Kennedy is remembered and admired in Berlin for the Speech. The simple gesture of meeting the Germans on their terms had a huge impact. Imagine if President Bush could go to Iraq and address the crowd in Arabic, or if he could go to France to smooth out public opinion in French. Then again he would probably say "Je suis un morceau du pâte feuilletée," that is, "I am a piece of puff pastry." In the same situation ex-President Bill Clinton, would say...never mind.

Episode III: Languages in the Classroom

If we recognize the importance of learning foreign languages, we must insist that our educational system put more emphasis on foreign language instruction and prepare a new generation of students that is able to communicate with the rest of the world. This requires that foreign language classes increase in both quantity and quality. Schools should try to teach the languages that will be most useful for their students. A Newsweek magazine article entitled, “The Future Doesn't Speak French” reported that “only 24,000 American students in grades 7 to 12 study Chinese, a language spoken by 1.3 billion people worldwide. On the other hand, more than 1 million students study French, a language spoken by only 75 million." So now, a million students can ask, "Oú est la Tour Eiffel?" (Where is the Eiffel Tower?), which is interesting but not very useful outside of Paris. More students are starting to study Chinese as schools offer it but unless foreign language education improves, students will still only learn to say "Ba lai tit top hai bin do?" (Where is the Eiffel Tower), which is even less useful in China.

So beyond offering more choices, schools must revamp the way languages are taught by stressing communication. After all, languages are a tool for communication, not an opportunity for students to memorize and regurgitate vocabulary and grammar rules on command. After four years of Spanish, when my teacher asked my classmate for a sentence using the new vocabulary words, the best he could come up with was "Yo esquio el mono," which translates to the enigmatic phrase "I ski the monkey." After careful consideration my teacher replied, "No, no esquias el mono." My friend's sentence may have been grammatically correct and the words were 100% all-natural español, but semantically the sentence was nonsense. This is an extreme example, but a phrase not unlike this one could potentially receive full credit on the New York State Foreign Language Exams. Maybe it's just me, but given the choice between the ability to express complex ideas with a few errors and being restricted to "Hola. Me llamo Frank," I would always choose the first option. However on most standardized tests, the second is preferred.

Episode IV: A New Hope

So while we anxiously await the invention of the universal translator, let us try to adapt to our changing world and shed our traditional isolationism. My personal goal is to eventually learn seven languages. If you already studying a second language, I hope that you chose wisely and plan to learn it well. If you aren't studying another language, then what are you waiting for? As we embark on our linguistic journey, let's try not to just memorize the grammar and the vocabulary. Rather, let's strive to become bilingual or even multi-lingual. It's the difference between useless rote memorization and having a useful tool. That way, when you find yourself involved in a multi-million dollar merger with a Japanese firm, you can avoid the temptation to concluded the meeting with "watashi wa saru ga skii o shimasu," (I ski the monkey) because as that Spanish teacher so wisely pointed out, no, you don't. Besides, our goal should be to avoid skiing the monkey in any language. Domo arigato.

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