From a young age, I found that I was both interested in and fascinated with language, beginning with my native English. In third grade, I handily won a class competition by reading more than 50 books, which was like rocket fuel to my grasp of vocabulary, grammar, and spelling. As I went along, I was blessed to have some excellent English teachers, who both schooled me in the mechanics of English even as they exposed me to literature which captured my imagination.
My exposure to Yiddish at a young age from my grandparents led me to relish the rich aural tradition of this combination of spoken languages. Nearly everything, it seems, sounds like what it means. The study and learning of Hebrew offered a different set of challenges. While pronunciation was also different, it turns out this ancient language employs an entirely different alphabet, reads from right to left, and frequently deletes the vowels. So learning Hebrew, I felt, was a privilege, but also a challenging one.
Much easier, in that way, was my study of Spanish, which I truly embraced from the beginning. We had conversational Spanish on tv beginning in the fourth grade, and I never looked back, pursuing the study through middle school and into a much more rigorous high school and then college curriculum. I excelled from the beginning, mastering the academic part of it, but truly loving the conversation and pronunciation. While in high school, I also studied French for two years, and likewise excelled at that. As different as the two tongues sound, there was significant crossover.
When I moved to Phoenix, Arizona in the mid-70’s, I immersed myself in Mexican culture, and became as comfortable with vernacular and Calo as formal Spanish. From my Karate pursuits as a Martial Artist, I picked up elements of conversational Japanese. Phoenix has one of the best Sister Cities programs in the World, and I became heavily involved, first as a participant and soon as a Leader. I had also done business across Mexico, so that I came to understand what a positive and critical role understanding another’s language and having the ability to communicate effectively with them can have on the development of that personal and working relationship . Even having the ability to convey basic greetings in another tongue (Laotian, Korean, etc.) instantly conveys a level of respect for that person and their culture that you really can’t replicate otherwise. You see the eyes widen, the smile break across their face, and the doors begin to open. That is, after all, the key—Respect. Once you establish that, you have laid the foundation for a positive and hopefully successful relationship. Having been fascinated with travels to two of our Sister Cities, Taipei, Taiwan and Chengdu, Szechuan, China, I determined that the study of Mandarin was my next logical step. I took classes from friends who operate a school here in Phoenix. While the challenges of mastering a language that employs more than 26,000 characters are daunting, my direct interest was in the ability to communicate verbally, and for that, my keen ear for language has served me well.
Beyond the utilitarian ability to communicate, one’s language also is instructive in their way of thinking and customs. For example, with Mexicans and most Latinos, it is verboten to dive right into the direct business at hand, as is so often common with Americans. Instead, it is proper to greet the individual and show some interest in them before crossing that bridge. While this might seem different to impatient Americans, I have found, in business dealings, that you then establish a more solid rapport that is beneficial whenever challenges come up, as they always do. At that point, the relationship is there to fall back on, so that each hiccup is not a do-or-die situation.
In sum, in an environment where Globalism & Multiculturalism are the appropriate frames of reference, comfort and facility with language can both open doors and lay the foundation for successful relationships.