August 25, 2014

DUGGAL | The Dangers of Only Speaking American

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By HEBANI DUGGAL

This summer, my family made the decision to drive from our home in Connecticut down to our new home in Texas. Twenty-eight hours, two tires and far too many gallons of gas later, we were parked in our new driveway, staring nervously at a large orange tree that seemed to lean dangerously close to our front door. Whether driving halfway across the country was a brilliant idea or a terrible one is not a choice I’ve come to terms with yet, but the trip itself taught me a few things. First, there is no service in Alabama — at all. I’m pretty sure AT&T forgot the state exists. Second, it is very easy to die when the speed limit is 75 miles per hour. I spent my first time driving past the Mason-Dixon line traumatized because I’d never been over 65 mph, and there was a car (legally) driving 80 mph next to me. And finally, perhaps my most important lesson from the trip: America really loves America.

The sentiment goes beyond national pride. With the Fourth of July only days away and the World Cup ongoing, I had expected a surge in patriotism throughout the country. But what I experienced felt a little more like self-absorption. People seemed to be so consumed by their own lives that they had no idea an entire world exists, significantly larger than the one that surrounds them. There was small talk all around me, from Paul George’s injury to Clooney’s engagement, but few people bothered to address events happening outside the United States. Those that did, usually did so during a World Cup match, and went on to follow up their politically incorrect statements with a rant about ‘Murica for the next few minutes. My favorite was a man in Tennessee who couldn’t believe Ghana, a country we apparently share a border with, was tied with the United States in an ongoing World Cup match. Vice President Joe Biden recently claiming “there is no reason the nation of Africa cannot and should not join the ranks of the world’s most prosperous nations” at an African Leaders Summit is most definitely a close second. It is my generation, however, that concerns me the most. A National Geographic survey shows 63 percent of young Americans (ages 18-24) couldn’t find Iraq on a map while 54 percent didn’t know Sudan was a country in Africa. Many colleges seem to be doing little to discourage this trend — by not requiring students to learn another language, colleges are conveying that it doesn’t matter if there is an entire population that speaks languages other than English so long as the few people that surround us can understand what we have to say.

I understand it is unrealistic to expect everyone to know where every country is, the same way it is unrealistic to expect everyone to run out and learn Spanish or French or some other foreign language. Knowing facts and learning languages doesn’t necessarily make a person more cultured or more aware of the world. Aside from being a resume booster, there isn’t really a shining incentive for an engineering major to add an extra language class to an already stressful schedule. However, in an age where the world lives within the small screen of a smartphone, it is important to care about what happens around us. We should want to pick up a few words of another language, travel to different places — or let our words travel. When we think about things that are nearby, our thoughts are constricted, bound by a more limited set of associations, according to Jonah Lehrer from The Guardian. The experience of another culture allows us to become more open-minded, makes it easier for us to see a situation in a different way or realize that a single thing can have multiple meanings. So while it may feel comfortable to focus only on what happens in our lives or the lives of those close to us, taking an interest in the rest of the world can only come back to impact us in a positive way. After all, Mark Twain said it best when he observed “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Hebani Duggal is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at hduggal@cornellsun.com. Teach Me How to Duggal appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.