Foreign language and empathy

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Recent events have made me think considerably about the importance the knowledge of foreign languages has in our society.

It is commonly accepted that being proficient or fluent in a foreign language brings with it more opportunities on the job market.  Simply put, it makes you more marketable because it opens you up to larger demographics of people in the United States and around the world with our global economy.

One doesn’t just read books or take classes and master languages.  If you’re learning a new language later in life, it can turn into a difficult experience, often taking years to become fluent and decades to master.

Yet, as we understand the importance of foreign languages, there is a certain percentage of Americans who fail to understand the significance of understanding a people’s culture and language.

Last Wednesday, Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania senator and candidate running to win the Republican presidential primary, traveled to Puerto Rico to campaign for the 20 delegates on the island.

While in Puerto Rico, Santorum said if Puerto Ricans wanted to be a state, they must embrace English as their official language.  When I first heard this, I laughed and assumed he misspoke, as the United States does not have an official language, having his comment make little sense.

He went on to explain how Hawaii has multiple languages, but the official language is English; this, however, is not true as individual states do not have official languages.

It was not the fact he made a statement that makes little sense that bothers me.  The fact that some speculate it was a political move to garner more support from individuals who have more closed-minded views on other languages, cultures and people is what scares me. It shows a lack of interest in the rest of the world from certain Americans.  As a student and someone who loves to learn, this is mind-boggling.

One would think that knowledge is power and the rush of knowledge one gets from understanding a different society should be an amazing thing.  The fact that there are people in our nation who fail to see the significance of having empathy with other cultures and society, and these people strike out against them, is frightening.

Understanding and especially mastering another language gives you a feel not only for the spoken word, but a feel for culture that can involve terms and words English has no translation for, as well as connotations within the language.

Frankly, Americans should be more diverse in languages understood and spoken.  With a greater understanding of people and cultures, we gain the ability to be empathetic with them and understand the logic behind the actions people take.  While I am obviously an English speaker, empathy is an important aspect of critical thinking.