Only English?

Meet Julianna, Director of Operations for the Student Language Exchange.

I never needed to know a language other English.

I grew up in an English speaking area, with English speaking parents, and English speaking friends. My slight lisp and and poor handwriting were hard enough to perfect in English, let alone in another language.

But this isn’t for lack of effort. My mother, sister, and I are dual citizens of the United States and Italy. So from a very young age my mom was determined to have us learn Italian in order to communicate with our Italian paisan. We had a babysitter who only spoke Italian and smelled like stale cookies, summers among solely Italian speaker playmates, and Andrea Botticelli playing most nights in our house. I even took Italian for 4 years in high school. And yet— io parlo solo un po’di italiano.

Last Spring I sat in on the TEDx Talks at Brown. The one that stood out was with this redhead chick talking about language. She said something about how only certain languages are represented in American universities and yet so many others are represented in the everyday world of humanity. She used the example of Bengali— the 6th most commonly spoken language in the world is only studied by 92 American college students. How could this be possible? How could we be cut off from so many people through language? Questions like these continued to baffle me. I knew I was hooked.

And yet, I didn’t have an experience with language learning in a situation where there was an immediate need. I took 6 years of Latin and 4 years of Italian and still only spoke English. That was until this past summer. From June until August I worked for an NGO in rural Ecuador. I was told I didn’t need Spanish on arrival, that I would learn it. I didn’t believe them. I stepped off the plane and got in a cab not knowing my right and lift. Literally, I didn’t know how to say right and left. I had this overwhelming sensation that my voice box was removed, that my agency as a human was gone. For someone who likes to talk as much as I do—this was terrifying.

But within two weeks I figured out my derecho from my izquierda and could communicate with my host family and neighbors, albeit brokenly. It was incredible.Humans have such a drive to communicate that we will mold our brains to do so in any way possible. I was in awe at my mind’s power to suddenly speak another language, to communicate where before I was mute and to connect through language where before the barrier was all too clear.

Over the next two months I was able to hold semi-coherent conversations with my families and clients. I never relied on the assumption that everyone in the world speaks English because that could not be farther from the truth. I recognized the unparalleled importance of learning another person’s language, respecting them with your effort to communicate, and allow their knowledge to become a tool in your growth. I had learned enough of a language to communicate and connect on a human language in just over 2 months. I knew I was hooked.

I never needed to know a language other than English.

But now I was living in a Spanish speaking area, with Spanish speaking parents, and Spanish speaking friends. So I’m gonna call bull on the statement above.

The Student Language Exchange embodies everything I now know about language learning. The world has too many people speaking too many languages to only speak one. Taking the time to learn even a little bit of someone else’s language gives you a window into the workings of their life. Spanish was my window, but there is also unlimited access to the Spanish speaking and language learning world from our position. SLE recognizes the critical nature of language in human connection and expands the window I found this summer with underrepresented languages and cultures.

I am unbelievably excited to be part of the Student Language Exchange team and cannot wait to see the change this organization brings about. As I look for my world view to widen, I wish the same upon my peers. Whether its gente, persone, or sampradāẏa, language provides vital agency for human connection.





Julianna is a sophomore at Brown University studying anthropology and social innovation.


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