Of Treadmills, Languages, and Feeling at Home in the World

I’m yet at another airport. As I reflect on this exciting year of travel, I’m also thinking about my regrets. I have few regrets about anything, but a couple of regrets that surface today are that I do not know a second language, and I wish I had programmed my treadmill to “Incline.” Walking up and down the hills is a great incentive to put more rigor into my workouts.

In regard to my language regret, in much of my travel, I connect with colleagues in colleges and universities, and because of that, I have been lulled into thinking that much of the rest of the world speaks English as well as at least two other languages. In the real world of visiting another country, most of the people do not speak English, and if you’re lost, you remain lost for a long time.

I took Latin in high school and Spanish and French in college. Also, I was in Mexico for ten weeks about seven years ago where I attended an intensive language school where I was taught Spanish for six hours a day. The operative word is “taught” and not “learned.” I was never a slacker during any of these opportunities to learn a second language. The instructors were diligent in teaching what they knew in the way in which they had been taught. I received good grades in most of my classes because I was good at memorizing and performed well on written exams. By the time I was in third-year French in college, the ruse was up. I had to learn the language and could not rely on my good memory to repeat back what I’d read and heard. I had to think critically in another language.

There are other students like me today who will do well on the exams that require rote memorization, and they, like me, will give up on learning a language when they can no longer parrot what they have heard. It is heartening to know that languages today are taught more in context where students have to use the language and not simply memorize conjugations and vocabulary.  

Regrets aside, by way of observation, I have noticed that in travel I can appreciate the liberal arts.  Recently, in conversations with students at a university, they expressed impatience in having to take courses in general education. They wanted to get to their major as quickly as possible. They said that they would make better grades if they were taking courses where they could see the practical application for their future work. If these students had the opportunity to travel internationally, I think they would understand that there are practical applications for the their courses in general education, and more than that, they would feel a sense of satisfaction in being able to be at home  anywhere in the world because of their common base of knowledge about history and the way the world works.

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