Misha Latty, Guest Columnist
As an English speaker, we like to believe that English is the widest spoken language in the world, and this is partly true. There are approximately 500 million speakers (native and non-native) of the English language, and we can bask in the fact that English is the official language for more countries than any other language is the world.
When we think about this, it's pretty amazing. But alas, the largest spoken language in the world is Mandarin (Chinese), which boasts more than one billion speakers. English comes a close second - or does it? English has approximately the same number of speakers as Spanish. This means that English and Spanish compete for second place.
Here in Jamaica, we are surrounded by our Spanish-speaking neighbours, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Just south of us is an entire continent nearly filled with our Spanish-speaking comrades, and let us not forget about our Central American amigos. With the native Spanish-speaking population of nearly 400 million people so close to us, why are we Jamaicans not trying to tap into this venture?
Why should we care about learning Spanish, and why should we even care about producing a nation of bilingual and even multilingual speakers? If you are asking yourself these questions, you are already limiting yourself to the wonderful opportunities that present themselves.
Why should we care about being a nation of bilingual/multilingual speakers? Globalisation. This sexy word really means that the world is one big house, with many roommates who share ideas, world views and products and shed light on other cultures. With the advent of improved technology and telecommunication, it has made sharing across the globe amazingly fast and so much easier.
So with business engaging in the exciting concept of globalisation, why is Jamaica missing out on all the fun? Our wonderful nation has 43 embassies and/or consulates. Of that number, 15 are from Spanish-speaking countries. If nearly half of our consulate and embassies are Spanish-speaking, we need to get on this Spanish-speaking/bilingual/multilingual bandwagon.
How exactly do we get a nation of nearly three million people to get up and start speaking Spanish?
What about CSEC and CAPE Spanish? Here lies the problem. Doing Spanish at those levels will not automatically guarantee that students will be fluent in Spanish. I was introduced to Spanish when I was young, and I liked Spanish, but it wasn't taught regularly, and I had no way of getting more intimate with the language so I just stored it in the back of my mind, where it gathered dust and cobwebs.
In high school, I was again introduced to Spanish and was very good at it. In the CXC exams I got a grade two. Was I fluent in Spanish then? No, I was just very good at memorising what I needed to know.
The problem with CSEC and CAPE is that they introduce a foreign language to many of us very late in life. The other problem is that they start out teaching us Spanish by drilling grammar rules and verb conjugations into our heads. Yes, because there is nothing students enjoy more than listening to rules about a language that they haven't even learnt how to speak yet.
They make learning a foreign language feel like a labour-intensive task. I would rather tar a roof in the middle of July than sit and listen to grammar rules. So, why don't we teach Spanish like we learnt English? I don't mean sitting and learning about grammar rules like 'i' before 'e' except after 'c'.
No, before we sat in a classroom, we learnt how to speak as babies by hearing and seeing and interacting with people who speak English. What we need is for English speakers to interact more with people who speak Spanish.
Four years ago, I was sitting in a university classroom talking with my classmate Medhi. Medhi (quite handsome) was from Morocco and spoke English. Within the span of 10 minutes, I had witnessed Medhi's range of languages. As his friends entered the room, he quickly switched to their native language, French, then to Spanish, then Arabic. He turned back to me and we said our goodbyes.
At first I thought, "Wow!" That is an amazing skill to have. Then I realised that this is a person who I would, in a few short years, be competing with in the global marketplace. After class, I asked him how he became fluent in so many languages. He said he had learnt them as a child, and since his country was located so closely to many other countries, it just made it easier for him to learn.
This is the secret to growing a nation of bilingual/multilingual people. Introducing the language to the population at an early age, and continuously reinforcing this new language, would greatly increase the chances of a nation of bilinguals.
How young am I talking exactly? When a child is two or three years old, his mind is like a new storage device, ready to be filled with wonderful and exciting information. As we get older, it gets a little harder to learn - our minds, or storage devices, become a bit outdated. (You know the story about the poor old dog, and his inability to learn new tricks). It is not impossible to learn a new language once we are older, but the time it takes a child to learn is a fraction of the time it takes an adult mind to do so.
Now, you all are asking yourselves, "How do you 'teach' two- and three-year-old children Spanish?". Well, not by teaching them grammar rules. I don't want to oversimplify this, but things don't have to be as difficult as they seem. It is this rigid system of teaching Spanish that got us into this situation in the first place.
Make learning fun
This is the plan. Have 15-30 minute classes every day for the children. Make learning fun. Have children sing Spanish songs, read Spanish books, play games in Spanish, watch videos in Spanish. Most important, let's speak to the children in Spanish.
Many of you are thinking, why not one- to three-hour classes. First, the brain tends to stop paying attention after about 30 minutes, and we are trying to making learning fun, not bore the children to death. So after we introduce Spanish to these adorable young children, the older they get they should be introduced to the not-so-fun but all-important side of any language - the rules.
So in high school, Spanish could then be taught like English language, maybe even introducing Spanish literature (let's not get ahead of ourselves). And just like that, we have created a generation of bilingual people.
For fun, I did the math. Let's say we decide to implement this plan in 2015. Let's call these children, Group A. In 2035, Group A would be in their 20s and would have been immersed in both English and Spanish. In 2075, Group A would be approaching retirement age, and we could assume they had offspring. These children would have an average age of 30 years, which would mean they would have had years of immersion in the Spanish language. Group B and third-generation Group C (children of Group B) would be at the early stages of learning Spanish.
Group B would have found it easier to grasp the Spanish and English, because both parents would be bilingual, and the same could be said for Group C. The average life expectancy of Jamaicans is approximately 73.43 years old. This means that by 2090, the generation prior to Group A would have all been long gone. In less than a century, it would be the norm for Jamaicans to speak both English and Spanish.
Now, I'm not saying that we should forget our Patois. That is like asking us to forget how to smile, or blink. Our Patois is what makes us amazing and unique. Besides, some things really can't be said in English; Patois gives it much more life. I can't imagine saying, 'Sori fi mawga dawg, him tun roun bite yuh' in English'; it just isn't the same.
Other critics are going to say, "How can we get a nation to be bilingual if many can't sufficiently speak or read the official language - English?" We are at an impasse. Having the nation fluent and achieving a literacy rate of 100 per cent is very important. English is one of the languages in which business is conducted, and it is very important that we, as native English speakers, grasp the language.
However, English is not the only language business is conducted in.
If I at least inspired one person to try to learn a new language or to introduce a new language to his or her child, I would have done what I had set out to do - inspire.
Misha Latty is a banking and finance student reading for a bachelor's degree. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.