Morris: Multilingually Short

August 12, 2019

by Leo Morris

When I heard that South Bend Mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg had taught himself Norwegian just to read more books by an author he enjoyed, my immediate reaction was to join with other conservatives in hurling a wicked retort.

Mine was: Now, perhaps he will learn English so he can read the Constitution.

But the truth is that I was impressed.

If he was being sincere, not just dishing up the usual political twaddle, he had undertaken a heroic effort. The language we use – its complexities and subtleties – shapes the way we can understand and describe human thought. Insights that are difficult enough to grasp in the original language cannot possibly be conveyed by the best translations.

I wonder, though, if his mission failed, if, indeed, it was possible to achieve. It takes a lifetime and then some to master the nuances of one’s native tongue, never mind the intricacies of an adopted language.

I have spent my entire career using the English language to persuade, to cajole, to provoke and motivate. And to this day, I am learning new ways to deploy it. How to use precisely the right word for precisely the right circumstance. How variations of sentence structure can pull readers along or stop them dead in their tracks. How a single comma or semicolon can have a drastic effect.

And I have struggled all that time, and failed, to be able to call myself fluent in Spanish. I studied it in high school. I took adult classes from a transplanted Guatemalan. I’ve self-taught with books and tapes and evenings in front of Univision.

Each time, I have run into the same wall. No matter how much I absorb, I’m not in a position to use the language every day, so I always forget 80 percent of what I learn. And without a solid foundation – one provided by years of serious study and constant use – I can never make the leap to understanding Gabriel García Márquez or Miguel de Cervantes in the language of their thought.

I came to this insight the other day on encountering an example of what is, I think, the most difficult language in the world, no less incomprehensible for its ubiquitousness – bureaucratese, that special jargon meant more to impress than to explain, more to obscure than clarify.

“A new initiative, led by the Indiana Language Roadmap at Indiana University,” said the news story at a PBS website, “is underway to create a more culturally aware workforce” in Indiana. It will help Hoosiers “navigate a global workforce” and, “for world language learning,” it will “enhance opportunities, increase access, ensure equity, improve quality, build statewide support and expand resources.”

I didn’t have a clue in the world what that meant, so I went to the link provided for the roadmap. There, I learned that there will be “collective input from stakeholders,” an advisory board of “seven members who represent multiple sectors across the state” and 10 regional leaders “who will work collaboratively with the project team.”

Still not a clue. So, I went to the official news release, where I discovered that the need for a comprehensive discussion of language learning in Indiana “is widely recognized by educators and business leaders as the state prepares residents to be competitive in the global marketplace.”

Still no idea. Are we supposed to learn how to order a sandwich, ask for the restroom’s location and talk about the weather in the 70 languages we are told I.U. teaches? Or dive deeply into the one language we are most apt to do business in, and shouldn’t the companies we work for be handling that? Merely appreciate the fact that we are a state encompassing many languages and numerous cultures?

Finally, I reached a site for the Language Flagship, which apparently sponsors this endeavor through a U.S. Department of Defense grant, where I found that there is “a national initiative to change the way Americans learn languages through a groundbreaking approach to language education for students from kindergarten through college.”

Well, OK, then. I finally got it. I think. These grand pooh-bahs of multilingual magnificence are going to patiently lead us to a better way of learning a foreign language. Whew. Wish they’d come up with that when I was struggling through high school Spanish.

It occurs to me that in most places, most of the time, there is a drift toward the dominant language in everyday transactions. I do not need to learn Chinese or Italian to order in those restaurants, because the staff is smart enough to know who the customers are. If that sounds nativist or even xenophobic, imagine trying to cope in Mexico without knowing Spanish. And if you plan to spend any time in Quebec, you really, really, really must study French.

And I would point out that Christianity became such a powerful force not because millions of people learned Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, but because the Bible was translated into the languages spoken by millions of people.

Ah, well.

I looked up the Norwegian novel read in translation by Mayor Pete, the one that inspired him to learn the original language. Naïve. Super, by Erlend Loe, is about the angst of a disillusioned 20-something undergoing an existential crisis who is deeply offended by the shallowness of society and the phoniness of the people in it.

Seems to me I have also read that in the original. It was by J.S. Salinger. El Guardian Entre El Centeno. I had to look that up. Clearly not presidential material.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at


Leave a Reply