Communication with people on the other end of the globe is becoming easier, thanks to that thing they call the world wide web. The only things stopping you from having a conversation with someone in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan are time changes and language barriers. Even though you're now an hour closer with day light saving time, language barriers aren't going away anytime soon.
There are an estimated 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, and more than 40 percent of them are at risk of disappearing, according to the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity. English is becoming an international language and in some cases, the universal language — it’s now the mandated international language of aviation.
Don’t get a false sense of security though. In this day and time, knowing only one language might set a person back, said Elizabeth Ametsbichler, co-chair of the department of modern and classical languages and literatures.
“Especially in a global world, we can’t isolate ourselves just because we only speak English,” Ametsbichler said.
University of Montana President Royce Engstrom has included the importance of bilingualism in his initiative to keep the University competitive in the global century, and the faculty senate backed his goal this month by making the two-year language requirement a campus-wide condition for graduation.
Despite the University’s efforts, Montana, for the most part, remains a single-language state. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, of the more than 1 million Montana residents, 4.6 percent of the state’s population speak a language other than English at home. Missoula’s population of nearly 70,000 runs only slightly higher, with 5.5 percent of the population as closet bilinguals.
Given that 93 percent of the Missoula County population is white, the lack of language diversity isn’t a huge surprise.
“You basically hear English wherever you go,” Ametsbichler said. “(But) I think there are a lot of opportunities in Missoula to learn (another language).”
The city is home to several language groups and independent schools. Of course, the University and Associated Students of the University of Montana sponsor a handful of student groups — the Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Kyi-Yo Native American, Persian, Saudi, South Asian, Spanish and Taiwanese clubs — to promote language learning and culture sharing.
But UM students aren’t the only people learning different languages. Missoula hosts one of the military’s leading institutions for language and culture study in the months before deployment. The Mansfield Center’s Defense Critical Languages and Cultures Program is an intensive education program sponsored by the Department of Defense that prepares armed forces to go into foreign countries.
“Anytime we send a soldier outside the U.S. to interact in another country, it’s of critical importance for them to understand the culture,” said Joel Cusker, the deputy director of the program. “Learning the language certainly helps with that.”
The DCLCP offers in-depth courses in several languages, mostly Central or East Asian languages or Arabic dialects, for special forces — army, navy, air force, marines, intelligence agencies and the national guard. Soldiers from around the country come to Missoula or enroll online for the extensive training. Cusker said that in the modern world we live in, knowing a single language might not cut it anymore.
“We don’t have the luxury any more to be discarded in the backwoods,” he said. “In Montana, we don’t have a lot of diversity ... We bring some diversity here.”
The DCLCP sponsors graduate teaching students from foreign countries to provide first-hand and local knowledge to its students. Cusker said there are currently seven graduate teaching assistants and four professors from Korea and China teaching in the program, who all attend or teach at UM.
And that’s how it usually goes — foreign language education tends to involve the University, Ametsbichler said.
“It’s not super easy to learn (a foreign language) if you’re not affiliated with the University or if you don’t have your own little group,” she said.
Despite the predominantly English-speaking population, Missoula has several opportunities outside the University to nurture language learning. Missoula International School is a bilingual grade school in the Rattlesnake where pre-school kids to eighth grade students learn in both English and Spanish. MIS also offers adult language classes for life-long learners of Spanish.
The Alliance Francaise de Missoula is a language and culture society that hosts regular film screenings and conversation tables. It also puts on a summer camp for kids, and the group’s Irish equivalent, Friends of the Irish, does an immersion camp for adults as well. For non-European language enthusiasts, the Tibetan Language Institute based in Hamilton offers written and oral instruction and teaches Buddhist beliefs.
Cultural events like Germanfest in September and the International Culture and Food Festival (March 23 this year) encourage language sharing and immersion, but Ametsbichler said that practicing language skills once a year isn’t enough to truly learn to be fluent.
Even with all the opportunities available, Ametsbichler said that a person’s progress in language learning corresponds with their enthusiasm.
“Learning a language isn’t easy. It’s how much diligence you put into it,” she said. “There’s no way around putting time and effort into learning a language.”
Studies by grade-school children show that Pig Latin is the easiest language in the world to learn, but UM still doesn’t offer that. Uck-fay udget-bay uts-cay.
Joel Cusker: 243.3600 w
Elizabeth Ametsbichler: 370.9261 c