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Two Dragons welcome the sunrise with an improvised dance atop the Andes. Photo by Ryan Gasper.

Why We Learn Language

I sat across the table from our host, Mario, as he explained why he returned to the tiny mountain village of Paru Paru from the modern metropolis of Lima. His story of adventure, of travels from the high Andes to the Pacific coast and the Amazon jungles, of heavy work in the mountains and mines centered on language. “In this community, when we speak amongst ourselves, it carries love, care, and power. The words people in the modern cities don’t speak beauty. Their words carry no love or power. Quechua is a language of beauty. It’s so sweet. When we talk in Spanish, it’s not so sweet.” So, after more than a decade, he returned to Paru Paru, that sweeter place, determined to preserve that culture and way of life that had nurtured his heart when he was young. And now, even the way Mario spoke Spanish was like the sweet smell of flowers. His words and his heart still belonged to that gentle eloquence of his first language.

Unlike Mario, I grew up in a monolingual world. I took Spanish classes in high school, but it felt like calculus or chemistry: something that I doubted I would ever actually use. I took language classes because they were required for entrance into most colleges I might want to attend. I never really wanted to learn Spanish, just like I never really wanted to learn calculus. And I never enjoyed it all that much. If it was easier to speak fluent English than broken Spanish, why should I learn to communicate in another language? But nobody ever asked me why I wanted to learn Spanish.

Here in South America, the reason to learn language is right in front of us every day. And it’s not just to translate our thoughts and communication into a language that people here understand.

Across the world, we learn language because each one has its unique stories to tell, and we open ourselves to new possibilities. We encounter these stories in newspaper columns, love letters, bed-time stories, idle chatter on the street corner, and philosophy. They’re told around campfires, written in beautiful curly scripts, and carved into ancient stone walls. Stories in English today have become dominated by the pragmatic, blunt language of global business, capitalism, and material success. Spanish stories express a multi-continental history of struggle and complex identity. Most speakers of Spanish are descendants of colonized people, building a resistance against imperialism out of the language of their former colonizers. Tibetan stories seem to be built around knowledge and understanding of the mind and devotion to a greater purpose. Life in Hindi seems to be a poetic unfolding over infinite time; the words for tomorrow and yesterday are the same in Hindi. A language is made from the stories that its people tell and the manner in which its speakers move through the world.

As English-speaking people from the United States, the narratives and stories that we have heard all our lives are simply not large enough enough to accommodate this place, the people we meet here, and the vast history. Life in Peru cannot fit into the English language. Without knowing a few Quechua words, we cannot understand the stories here, even if they’re translated into our own language.

Marcel Proust says, “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes, in seeing the universe with the eyes of another, of hundreds of others, in seeing the hundreds of universes that each of them sees.” It’s a beautiful thought, and I share it with my students. But in 2017, I could walk through any tourist market in the world with my eyes wide open and still find somebody to barter with in English, all the while further isolating myself from the place I am supposedly trying to experience. It’s the stories we hear that change the way we know the world.

We don’t learn language to barter in the market for bracelets. We learn language to think and communicate more like the people who have different stories to tell, to understand the world as they perceive it not through their eyes, but through their ears. We learn language to understand other mindsets and ways of being. Anywhere we travel, there are stories waiting to be told; stories that could never exist in an English-speaking world.