23 April 2020

My first impulse for learning Spanish arose from the visit of a United Nations interpreter to my family home when I was 12 years of age. Tina was from Argentina. For two consecutive years, she spent Christmas at our house as a “cultural homestay” during her vacation. She gave me my first Spanish lessons.  

The following year I entered high school and chose Spanish for my foreign language study. Spanish was spoken as an official language in 20 countries. I saw it as the most global language and of major value to me in communicating with more than 4 million inhabitants of my own country and those of 20 others.

I applied myself in my high school studies. I did well in math and science, but I did not like memorization. Although my grades in Spanish were my lowest, a class trip to Mexico was a formative experience. I stayed with a Mexican family in the “Distrito Federal”—Mexico City. The family treated me very well, and I learned a lot about their lifestyle, cuisine and customs. They were my first Spanish-speaking friends who did not speak English.

When I entered Oberlin College I established many friendships among international students who spoke Spanish and Hispanic students born in the United States who wanted to speak the language of their families. My conversations with them stimulated my imagination and helped me understand that, even though we spoke the same language, our lives, ways of thinking and customs were very different. Most significant to me was the transformation of my way of seeing things, that I was contextualizing my way of being beyond my North American experience. I started to understand that my second language enabled me to perceive a “fourth dimension” that did not correspond to the realities defined and limited by the dimensions of English.

I decided to study abroad in Madrid. I lived there with three other students in an apartment of a woman who was a widow. From the first day of my arrival in my new world, I focused with more clarity, adding words to my vocabulary and accessing the limits of Spanish linguistics—the fourth dimension.

During the seven months I was in Spain I discovered and was imbued with its culture, the daily routine, the way people socialized, their values, their cuisine, the importance and practice of religion, the rites and “rhythms” of life. I was discovering all of this because I understood the language. This “understanding” manifested itself in a deep comprehension, which in turn influenced the possibilities of interaction and conversation.

In terms of semantics, the discipline known as “psycholinguistics” explains how words, verb tenses (or the lack of tenses in certain languages) change how one “comprehends” the world and human actions. Just as a language can block understanding between people, the study of a second language opens the mind, the eyes and the understanding that a person who does not speak our language has a perception distinct from ours, a perception that we cannot understand each other without sharing a common language. This awakens an awareness of a “fourth dimension”, although we can neither see nor measure it.

Winners of the Many Languages, One World global essay contest, held from 2014-2017 by ELS and Berlitz in cooperation with the United Nations Academic Impact, appear with Mr. Harris and co-founder Ramu Damodaran in New York, 2016.

When I returned to the United States, I wanted to become a university professor in order to open the door to understanding and tolerance. I saw the teaching of languages as a strategy for achieving understanding, cooperation and peace at the global level. From then on, my goal and mission were to promote the learning of languages.

The act of learning a second language transformed me, and for more than 50 years I have seen the same impact in thousands of students around the world. Investing thousands of hours in learning a language well is an act of faith and “conscience”.

In the Many Languages, One World competition, organized by Berlitz in cooperation with Mr. Ramu Damodaran, Director of the United Nations Academic Impact initiative, we have heard the voices of more than 10,000 university students from 172 countries. The competing essayists have said that, in this century, anyone who doesn’t learn a second or third language cannot consider him or herself a “global citizen”. The participants wrote essays in Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, English, French and Russian. They spoke four languages on average.

The major value of learning another language is that it permits us to perceive the fourth dimension. When one hears their native language spoken by a “foreigner”, the words enter through the ear but arrive directly in the heart.

It doesn’t surprise me!

This article was translated from the original Spanish version

The UN Chronicle  is not an official record. It is privileged to host senior United Nations officials as well as distinguished contributors from outside the United Nations system whose views are not necessarily those of the United Nations. Similarly, the boundaries and names shown, and the designations used, in maps or articles do not necessarily imply endorsement or acceptance by the United Nations.