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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Interesting and Interested

It has become far too familiar--that gnawing feeling I get in my gut when I realize that the person sitting across from me, the one I have been speaking with for the last twenty minutes or so, really couldn't care less about anything having to do with me or my world. You know it’s happening when you can’t get a word in edge-wise, or after you’ve listened to the other person ad infinitum and they don't even show a feigned interest in uttering one solitary question about you or your state of being.

Traveling to an island off the Korean coast recently, we were waiting for our flight at the local airport. Sitting in a quiet and nearly empty area we saw a man approaching us with an unmistakable missionary zeal in his step. Mr. Kim--his name we soon came to learn--was a man on a quest. He was interested in telling us about the well-worn book in his hand, his heralded professional career, his home on the island, his hobby, his grand-children, and so on. After 15 minutes or so it became apparent that we might be spending the rest of the afternoon with our new friend. Luckily, he was about to board the only other flight departing Daegu that afternoon.

Mr. Kim, proud man that he was, meant no harm. But neither was he one bit interested in us. In less that a quarter of an hour, I knew more about Mr. Kim than I do about any of my students, or most of my colleagues for that matter.  Simply speaking, Mr. Kim, was not interested—and of course, that is his prerogative.

But my preference--should anyone be interested--is to spend my precious interpersonal time with people who are both interesting and interested. Look, we’re living in a world where these things increasingly matter. In a recent Atlantic article, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” Stephen Marche notes that “We never have been more detached from one another, or lonelier. In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society.”

From here on out, I’ll take my actual interpersonal encounters with a double shot of two-way conversation, a tablespoon of genuine empathy and a side of listening. I want to be in the presence of people who are both interesting and interested—to “meet me in the middle,” as James Taylor says in his song “Caroline I See You,” a place where together we can “melt like chocolate. “
                                                  Statue, Yeungnam University

Friday, April 6, 2012

Get Smart, Get Bilingual

By nature, I am impatient.  That condition does not help my efforts to learn (or in my case, re-learn) the Korean language. Because Korean is not related to English in the way that say Spanish, Italian or French are, romantically—so to speak—I am forced to re-frame all my perceptions of the world as I learn the language.  It is a rich and fascinating process, unfortunately made more challenging by the fact that my classes come late in the evenings.

Korean can be wonderfully ambiguous—no need to wrestle with the feminine or masculine—don’t worry, I am told, the person you are speaking with will figure out who you mean. On the other hand, when you are buying things like movie tickets, chickens, books, or say bottles of water--each has their own particular counting unit that must be attached to the type of item. I can only smile at these countless discoveries I make on this linguistic and cross-cultural journey.

That said, a recent article in The New York Times by Yudhjit Bhattacharjee, was especially eye-opening. The author claims that speaking a second language has many more benefits than the obvious value of navigating more fluidly across our global landscape. The findings are that being bilingual actually makes you smarter. The implications are, I think, far reaching.

Korea has a several decades-old national strategy to ensure that almost all their students learn to speak English in their public schools. Additionally, parents who can afford it--and many who can’t, but work longer and harder to pay the necessary tuition—send their kids to late afternoon through late evening private schools so that they can hone their English skills even further. The ultimate goal, truth be told, is to help ensure that their kids get top grades on college entrance exams and thus get accepted into a top tier Korean University.

Korean students were recently ranked first internationally on problem-solving skills--a good list to be first on. One has to wonder about the possible correlation between the country-wide initiative here to learn English and this national problem-solving competency. According to Bhattacharjee, “the bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function — a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks.”

I know back in the U.S. we often talk about how we need to be better able to compete on the world stage. But, what would be a better way to prepare our children to be competent global citizens than to ensure that each child can speak at least one language other than English?  Korean, Chinese, Spanish, French—competence in that second language would surely be their best possible passport into the future. Collectively, we would be much smarter for it.

Young Korean students racing into the future

Link to New York Times Article