All I wanted was a cup of coffee.
The scenario was not unusual; 9 a.m. had rolled around, and the mid-morning lull began to sink in. The morning was beautiful and brilliant in the late-summer sunshine. Perfect time for a nice espresso. Unfortunately, I had a small problem. A problem that had to do with a foreign country and an even more foreign language.
I had no idea how to order in French.
I sat in the middle of a street-side Parisian café, and the waiter had asked for my order. I looked into the his expectant eyes, swallowed ... and nothing. I had nothing.
All my years of Spanish instruction garble swirled uselessly inside my head.
No desperate stammer of "hola, gracias, por favor" would do much to help me now.
Before leaving the country, I had the subtle – yet profound – sense that English was the only language in the world. Sure, other people spoke other languages; but the reality of a language barrier never feels real until you run smack into it, like myself. I'm here to say that people in France definitely speak French.
As an English speaker, I just can't forget that moment — that sudden feeling of utter helplessness, when all the ways in which I expressed and defined the world around me — my language had lost all meaning.
The situation worked out just fine, with the help of gestures and my pathetic attempts to pronounce "coffee" in French.
The use of spoken language is perhaps one of our most underrated human abilities. No other known creature can speak with the incredible diversity, intricacy, variety and rapidity of humans. Our bodies allow us to utter different sounds and comprehend its meaning and are miraculous for their physiological function alone. But humanity didn't settle for simple clicks or moans.
People boast a stunning diversity in languages — well over 6,000 across the globe, at least.
Of course, I don't think about this at all when I'm asking my roommate to borrow her toothpaste, or writing an essay or listening to my friends tell me all about their weekends.
Still, I think it is of exceptional importance to recognize language for its power and vital function in everyday life. And though knowing English has been perfectly fine for living in America, I am sad to say that the world is absolutely brimming with people with whom I could not communicate in a verbally meaningful way. Our greatest bond is also our greatest division.
My education thus far has not rendered me fluent in any language other than English. I have taken extensive coursework in Spanish, but not necessarily enough to fool anyone outside of the classroom. As a kindergartener, I had Spanish lessons every day, and the language skills came with exceptional ease — but the lessons stopped when my family moved south, and I didn't resume any Spanish classes until fifth grade.
Neuroscientists note that a child's brain acquires new language skills with remarkable ease until late childhood, and the benefits of learning multiple languages are becoming more and more apparent with new research. Learning two languages allows the brain to be faster, more agile and better at problem solving. Nothing, it appears, is lost, but much is to be gained.
The U.S. has begun halting steps towards teaching language to young children. In Utah, some K-12 schools are teaching half classes in English, and half classes in Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin or French. Many other states are responding with curiosity, and are considering instating similar instruction.
I dearly hope that one day soon, schools in the U.S. will begin consistent, effective dual-language instruction at a young age. In addition to conversing with an entirely different population of people, and enhancing brain plasticity, the benefits of bilingualism are virtually limitless.
And maybe a girl like myself, one day in the future, will be able to sit in a Parisian café, and in clear French, order a nice espresso.
With cream on the side.
Sarah Hagaman is a sophomore in English. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.