The value of speaking a second (or more) language

As the world — or Catholics — reeled from the sudden and unexpected news that Pope Benedict is stepping down, an interesting fact emerged. The reporter who broke the story, i.e. who was first to report it, Giovanna Chirri, a staffer for the Italian wire service ANSA, was able to do so because she could read Latin, a language relatively few people choose to study any more.

English: Pope Benedict XVI during general audition
English: Pope Benedict XVI during general audition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From The Huffington Post:

I gave the news, then I started crying.”

Giovanna Chirri, who covers the Vatican for Italy’s ANSA news agency and is the editor of a lay people’s newspaper, immediately understood what was happening. When Pope Benedict XVI started whispering his farewell speech in Latin, “my brain short-circuited: I thought it was absurd,” Chirri said. “I knew, just like everybody else, what he’d written in his book. But I was convinced he would never quit.”

A journalist who has covered Vatican affairs since 1994, Chirri was able to break the news under pressure. “As a person, I was really, really sorry. I admire Ratzinger. I respect him,” she said. “I knew the importance of the news: I tried to contact the agency, to get the information verified, even though I didn’t doubt my Latin, then they took care of breaking the news. That’s how I communicated the information.”

As this story reminds us, being able to speak multiple languages — normal for many Europeans, less common for most North Americans — is a terrific skill. It not only helps reporters, but anyone trying to work across borders: translators, aid workers, non-profit employees, pilots, medical professionals, academics and students.

I decided to study French and Spanish during my years at the University of Toronto because I wanted to be able to work in both languages, ideally as a foreign correspondent. I did some volunteer work while an undergrad, interpreting the testimonies — grim, graphic and heartbreaking — of Chilean political refugees seeking asylum in Canada. I later used my French to win an eight-month journalism fellowship in Paris and a job at the Montreal Gazette, where we often worked in French.

I used my French again last week while reporting in Montreal, delighted at the chance to use it and refresh it naturally, not just sitting in a classroom or language lab.

I know some Broadside readers, like Kate, speak multiple languages.

How many do you speak? Which ones?

Why did you learn them and when?

Do you find it helpful personally and professionally?

41 thoughts on “The value of speaking a second (or more) language

  1. My French used to be quite good, but it’s fallen into disuse. I also studied Latin for a year and absolutely loved it, until a move to a territory with a sub par school put the breaks on it. I used both in my degree. My mother lived in Japan and studied Japanese for years, and she’s also studied ancient Greek and Latin for her degrees and uses them now teaching university. My father speaks German, picked up of necessity when we lived there, and useful when we lived in Belgium and still traveled in Germany extensively. J. speaks Korean which sure looked great on school applications and resumes, and may prove useful in his professional life.

    I believe deeply in learning multiple languages – it baffles me how people get on in the world knowing just one!

  2. I bet dinner table arguments could get really interesting as you all shift from one to another!

    One of my favorite memories was visiting a German reporter for Reuters in Barcelona who was married to an Englishman, who had two girls and a nanny. The convos spun back and forth seamlessly between English, German and Spanish. So cool!

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Caitlin. My Spanish was once passable, but w/languages, it’s “use it or lose it,” and I haven’t used it enough for some time. But, I have to say that I’m a big advocate of at least learning the basics when traveling. It’s amazing what just a little familiarity will do. I learned the Cyrillic alphabet before traveling to Russia and found that there were enough cognates so that I could translate many signs: Pесторан is a good example. “P” sounds like the English “R” and “C” is “S.” Put’em together and you get Restauran(t)!

    My three years of high school Latin come in handy all the time – both in understanding many unfamiliar English words and in translating other Romance languages.

  4. I speak both English and Hebrew, the latter I learned from nine years at a Jewish day school and from years of praying in Hebrew. My proficiency in Hebrew allowed me to fulfill my language requirement before I even started classes at school, lead prayers almost every Friday night, and even converse with my psychology teacher, who is Israeli.
    Yes, I think my foreign language skills have been a lot of help.

  5. I speak English like a native, 😉
    I learnt French in France, because if you live and work somewhere you need too, because you need friends and speaking the local language shows them that you respect them. I wanted to stand in a crowd, have a drink and chat, I can do that now. I speak survival German, I can get food, drink and a place to sleep, politely. And I know three words of Hungarian, Yes, no and thank you – ygen, nem and kosonom (may well be spelt wrong though!)

    That’s it at the moment, though I may try Welsh next as I love to visit the mountains there. I am shocked by how many Europeans speak a second language, while us English speakers seem to just stay with the one. We helped the local French school with the students conversation lessons for while, good fun. And helped us a lot afterwards, speaking with the teachers.


    1. I love that phrase “survival German”. I was hopeless on my visit there many years ago, kept going into bakeries, pointing and saying “ein.” Not impressive and quite fattening!

      Welsh would be a serious accomplishment!

  6. Lynn Daue

    “Speak” is a relative term. I’ve studied French, German, Spanish, Latin, Russian, Arabic, Farsi, and Hawaiian in varying amounts over the years. I would say that despite spending five years taking Latin and living in Russia twice, I speak German the most proficiently, thanks to being married to a Berliner. I’m casually studying French and Hawaiian right now, but the chances of learning those to any level of usefulness are slim.

    I do know how to ask where the bathroom is located and if I can have a beer in four different languages though, so maybe I’m good.

  7. My husband, John does a great job with Latin and when we’re France he does most of the talking as he actually speaks French unlike my hit or miss approach. Despite having spent 2.5 years in Germany, my German language skills will be very limited when we have a chance to go back. I took Spanish in school, but learned more from a Cuban girlfriend who would patiently translate for me as I attempted to increase my Spanish understanding by eavesdropping. I know that’s bad, but not everybody learns the same way, right? 🙂

    1. When Jose and I were in Mexico — where his grandfather is from — it came as a bit of shock to people that the (then) blond Canadian named Kelly spoke better Spanish than he did…as his parents (like many ambitious Americans) did not speak Spanish at home so he would not grow up with an accent. As he told people, “I can understand but not speak.”

      Perfect husband? 🙂

      1. That’s pretty funny, Caitlin.

        I had a boyfriend once who was a first generation American. His parents knew little English and would not speak Italian to their children because they wanted them to be Americans and to only speak English. It was terrible for the parent-child relationship. Imagine trying to discuss the important stuff in life with your children with a minimum understanding of each other’s language. I met his mother once and it was awful trying to communicate. I think the dad’s English had been better, but he died pretty young.

        When we were in Wales, we learned that all children must learn to speak Welsh and English in school. This has around for about twenty years so there are parents who are Welsh who didn’t have this requirement in school and don’t speak much at all while their children who were educated in the last twenty years can speak to each other in a language their parents don’t understand.

  8. I grew up in a bilingual English/French household but married a German and consequently lived there and learned the language. He’s gone but the language and the advantages it conferred remain! I also have basic Latin. Knowing more than one language has always been helpful, both professionally and personally.

  9. I speak English first, German second after creating the University program that linked the University of Alaska, Frbnks with the Goethe INstitut in Munich… now I drive my daughter daily between two Amerian high schools so she can learn German. She goes every summer to Germany to also beef up her spoken German… it might just yield a free education since she holds a German passport… but not as important as offering her multitudes of other flexibilities and opportunities.

    I too studied Latin in New York high schools growing up.

    BTW what do you call someone who’s trilingual? European. Bilingual? Canadian. Monolingual? American.

  10. A friend of mine, Dr. Ellen Finkelpearl, who teaches Latin at Scripps College and is an expert on Apuleius, tells me, “the Latin had several mistakes…And the papal twitter-feed was an embarassment–3 terrible mistakes in 3 short lines.”

    I made several mistakes in Spanish today and a few in Hindi, so I’m not one to speak. At least my English was mostly okay.

  11. Most Malaysians know at least two, Malay and English. Those from Chinese schools know three or four if he/she is an Indian. Personally I speak Mandarin, 3 Chinese dialects, Malay, English and a smattering of Korean but written wise only English. I once knew a Malay man who is verbally fluent in 16 languages/dialects and he only finished primary school. I bet few have such lingual diversity.

  12. I served as a Russian linguist in the Army and have a minor in Russian, studied German and lived there for a couple of years, have some college Spanish and 4 years of high school French as well. I am not fluent in any of them and I haven’t used them to advance a career. However, my love of languages, of etymology and morphology and semantics makes reading, writing and listening so much more interesting. Languages are rich with cultural history and are connected, each and every one of them. It’s really a fascinating field.

    1. You had me at “Russian linguist”! 🙂

      I love knowing other languages and being able to slip in and out of them. I also really enjoy how differently they express a worldview. In French, if someone goes into a room, on “penetre”…you penetrate it…with a notion of invaded privacy wholly absent in English. I also wish English had the equivalent verb “agresser”, which is mighty common in real life here. My fave French expression, which is parfait for a rant, is “ras-le-bol!” (tech. j’en ai…) My bowl is full…I’ve had it!

      Might be a good blog name?! 🙂

  13. Thanks for the mention, Caitlin. Languages have been my way into journalism. Fluent German was a foot in the door to my current job working for an international broadcaster. I had the benefit of growing up bilingually, as my German mother made sure to speak to me in her mother tongue. In Ireland, learning Irish is compulsory, so I spent 14 years learning the Celtic language. There’s huge opposition to the policy of having to learn a “dead” language in Ireland, but I am so grateful and glad to be able to speak it. The Irish language is a cultural and historical artefact. It also offers an insight into various quirks of Hiberno-English. I learnt French at school and took Latin for three years. At the moment I am learning Arabic online. For anyone interested, this site offers a fantastic Arabic course for free. It’s better than any book I’ve bought;

    Last week, I joined up with a group of Irish-speakers in Berlin. Two were older men from Galetacht areas (where Irish is still spoken as a mother tongue) in the west of Ireland, one was a Czech man interested in learning a new and different language and the fourth was a German polyglot student, whose friendship with a girl from Cork has inspired him to learn the language.

    As well as being useful professionally and culturally, there is a personal pleasure in trying out new sounds and the feel of a foreign turn of phrase.

    Interestingly, the phrase “to dig something,” which we in Europe treat as an Americanism, comes from the wave of Irish immigrants in the states using the Irish phrase “And dtuigeann tú,” meaning do you understand/do you like.”

    1. The things I learn from you! So cool…

      Not sure if this would be of any interest to you, but WFUV (Fordham University radio station in NYC) has an Irish-language show every Saturday, which you could stream on-line. You probably have plenty of other resources. But it’s a fascinating reminder how important the language is to many New Yorkers who came here from Ireland. It’s a little embarrassing, given my last name of Kelly, that I know no Irish at all.

  14. Dutch is my mother language, and as you see I speak English. In high school French was compulsory for the first three years, German for the second and third year, after that I had to choose one of those two languages. I chose German, which means I still speak German (before that and also after have been in Germany and Austria a lot, so I still speak it pretty well, although my English is way better), but I noticed lately that I hardly speak French anymore. I want to learn that language again =) and I’d love to speak Irish some day in the future.

      1. It seems that my boyfriend is very fond of Ireland, so he will drag me there on holidays quite often. Oh, and because I love the sound of that language off course 😉

  15. Three, and if it’s spoken slowly, I can understand German too. I studied latin when I was in high school. But I wouldn’t have been able to understand the Pope like the journalist who broke the news.

  16. I’ve dabbled in French and German – French was my passion in high school, and it’s still a dream to live there someday. I’ve found both languages to be quite helpful as I’ve tiptoed around the globe. I find it unfortunate that many Americans often do not recognize the value (and joy) of studying another language. For several months, I taught high school French in the Midwestern U.S. One day while class was in session, a local hospital staff member telephoned the school to find a French speaker who could help translate important medical details for a North African family. Since the high school students were present and hearing my entire telephonic conversation live, I think this opened their eyes to the importance of a second or third language. To some, however, the concept of learning a language still remained abstract.

    1. American’s lack of interest in multi-lingualism, generally speaking, always strikes me as bizarre, esp. since I grew up in a legally bilingual nation, Canada, where having/working in two languages is normal and can offer you a much better career than speaking only one. Here that seems odd, when it’s such an advantage..

  17. I’m from the Netherlands and speak Dutch, English, a bit of German and French. I intend to travel to Taiwan next year to learn Mandarin Chinese.
    I’m always astounded that there are still countries were people just learn one language. All Dutch children learn Dutch and English, and most highschool students learn at least one or two more languages (German and/or French)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s