When I entered the eighth grade in 1959, I was given the option to study either Latin or French. I chose French because from what I understood, the French weren’t dead yet. Miss Limply, the school’s French teacher, launched the first day of class by showing a cartoon of the Three Little Pigs. From the confusing muddle of sounds blaring from the projector, I learned only one word—loup—or wolf. It made me laugh because it was pronounced loo, and in England that’s a toilet. Perhaps French was going to be fun.
Sadly, the second day of class brought no new amusing words. Instead, it involved a lot of verb and gender hoo-hah that seemed far too complicated to learn. Especially when my preferred mode of learning was passing notes to the girl who sat next to me. Perhaps I should drop the class before it was too late? The only other elective offered during that time slot was metal shop—which a friend told me consisted largely of burning things in a forge. Let’s see, which would I prefer? Conjugating French verbs or melting American lunch boxes?
After two weeks of falling hopelessly behind in French, I said goodbye to Miss Limply, crossed the great cultural divide that separated the language learning center from the metal shop, and began the task of making a cup out of a soup can. To this day, the only thing I recall from my brief brush with French is that “loup” means wolf, and I’ve not once had an occasion to use that tidbit.
That’s not entirely true. I did try to sneak “loup” into the conversation one afternoon when I was having lunch with a group of European executives in Munich. We were chatting about American authors and I was keeping up nicely until the conversation turned to European authors of whom I knew nothing. It was embarrassing to see how much these Europeans knew about American culture and how little I knew about anything European.
To joke my way out of my egregiously parochial view, I decided to say that I didn’t know much about European authors because I had been raised by wolves. Ha, ha! Get it? Raised by wolves! This entire conversation was taking place in English but, for reasons I’ll never know, I decided that this was the perfect time to impress my European colleagues by using my one French word, loup. Unfortunately, I wasn’t sure what the plural was for loup so I said: “I was raised by loupies.” My European colleagues thought I said lupus and stared at me with an odd mix of confusion and pity. It was really quite awkward.
I had forgotten about these language misfires until the day of my fifty-year high-school reunion when I ran into an old friend, Bernadine Westin. She introduced me to her husband as “her French connection.” At first, I had no idea what she was talking about. Bernadine reminded me that during those two weeks I had studied French back in 1959, Miss Limply had passed out the names and addresses of eighth-grade students in France who were eager to be our pen pals. Every month we were supposed to write our pal a chatty letter in French and he or she would write us back in English.
This sounded like a lot of work to me so I gladly gave the name and address of my proposed pen pal to Bernadine. She desperately wanted to correspond with someone in Europe, but hadn’t signed up for a language class. Now, some fifty-five years later, Bernadine was thanking me for graciously giving up my chance to make a European connection.
Bernadine went on to explain that since 1959, she had faithfully written her French pen pal every month. To this day, the two continue to write each other, occasionally travel together, and (in her own words) embody the meaning of “BFFs.” According to Bernadine, all this had transpired, thanks to me! Me, a selfless classmate who had abandoned any hope of a rewarding international experience by giving her my pen pal, without asking for anything in return. I took the praise like a man. That is, I took full credit for something I didn’t actually do.
The effort Bernadine put in to being a successful pen pal was truly remarkable. She had to learn French, travel to the post office, buy stamps, mail the letters, and did I mention learn French? But then again, her dedication had earned her something the rest of us never gained—a precious friend from a whole new culture—and an enriching world view.
And then it hit me. Everyone should have their own life-long pen-pal! Only without so much work. With the aid of today’s technology, you could just push a button and voilà! There on the screen would appear a live person from France, or China, or Uzbekistan!
I’m imagining software that could immediately translate whatever you say, with no confusion or awkward waiting. It would also match your lips to the words your smart device conjures so it would look and feel like an actual conversation. It would be an actual conversation. As an aside, my colleagues tell me that Google Translate and other language recognition software may not be far off in creating something like this.
Having meaningful contact with pals from afar would go a long way toward engendering cross-cultural awareness. At a time when many of today’s youth (and adults) are capturing every little thing they do in “selfies,” and when narcissism scores are (you guessed it) on the rise, what would it be like if today’s youngsters were in frequent contact and deep conversation with e-pals around the world?
Fortunately, lots of young people are doing just that. They have international e-friends, and many are entering language-immersion schools starting as early as the first grade. But what if we turned the best-and-brightest of Silicon Valley to designing the technology required to produce the software I’ve proposed? Once created, we could give a device to every grade-school child in the world—along with an e-pal address of a person they’d be assigned to chat with (e-face to e-face) a couple of times a week.
Imagine a world where we’ve all been transformed into a Bernadine. With constant contact from friends abroad, we would gain a deep appreciation for cultural differences along with a true empathy for others’ challenges. Plus we’d know enough about world events and people that we would never again have to say that we had been raised by loupies.
Best of all, if negotiations were to break down at, say, a world peace conference and leaders started to consider using forceful methods, they’d fondly remember their e-pal. And so would millions of other people who would have been chatting with their foreign buddies about sports, music, fake vomit, and annoying relatives twice a week since the first grade. Having enjoyed thousands of casual yet curiously bonding conversations with friends from afar, nobody would think of using force (and certainly not violence) as a tool for dealing with “foreigners.”
So what do you think of my proposal Miss Limply? Mucho clever, right? Mucho clever.