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Guest Column: Make Congress Multilingual

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, look at a problem in a new light, find a solution from a different perspective, is an invaluable asset in almost every aspect of life. Yet it’s not something we find easy to learn, even to the extent that it is often considered a gift rather than a skill. However, there can be few other activities that better help us to see situations from a new angle than learning another language.

There’s now a general consensus that a second language is an important skill in our globalized world. In the 2008 Global Social Survey, 80 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that children in the U.S. should learn a second language fluently before they finish high school, while 68 percent believed that learning a foreign language was as valuable as learning math and science. And every month, more evidence emerges in support of the cognitive benefits of multilingualism. But little research has been conducted into the way in which linguistic skills enable people to gain new perspectives. Language shapes our thought processes, so the ability to communicate and even think in another language necessarily confers the additional bonus of helping us consider situations from a different perspective. 

Much of what we do in our personal and professional lives can be enhanced by a different perspective. It’s difficult to be a good friend, partner, salesperson, writer or politician without being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes. Mahatma Gandhi was convinced that this ability could solve many of the world’s woes: “Three quarters of the miseries and misunderstandings in the world would finish if people were to put on the shoes of their adversaries and understand their points of view.”

In all negotiations, you need to understand who you are dealing with and what is important to them. The more you are able to get under the skin of the other party, the better able you will be to negotiate a mutually beneficial deal.

 Even the learning process itself provides a valuable experience, as language students are more able to appreciate and empathize with the millions of English language learners going through a similar process in this country whilst improving their own understanding of English through the wider lens of languages in general.

All around the world, coalition governments comprised of representatives from different parties manage to cooperate in order to govern. In fact, most parliamentary democracies are governed by coalitions. And the countries with the longest and most successful traditions of inter-party political cooperation happen to be those with a history of multilingualism, such as India, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany.

As we face the consequences of a federal government shutdown in the U.S., with the opposing parties in Congress refusing to negotiate and unwilling to put themselves in each other’s shoes, maybe we would be wise to make a budgetary exemption for all of Congress to take intensive language immersion programs. Who knows? It might even get them talking the same language.•

Daniel Ward is editor of Language Magazine (www.languagemagazine.com).

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