There’s an old joke I heard in India which goes something like this:

What do you call a person who speaks many languages? Multilingual

What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual

What do you call a person who speaks one language? American

Sad, but usually true. I got fairly deep into my adult life without having learned anymore
than the bare minimum Spanish I was required to study in the Arkansas public school system.
As you might imagine, I wasn’t all that conversational in Spanish by the time I graduated.
My father’s mother was German and my mother’s mother is Japanese. I grew up hearing many
languages spoken but somehow never learned another one. As a German-Japanese-American, by my
mid-20s I started to feel like I was missing something serious.

I was sitting at work in a big company lunch room one day talking
to an Indian friend. I asked how many languages he spoke and he said six.
I told him I was envious and that I guessed I would need to just
eventually move to another country so I could be immersed enough to
learn a language. I was tired of being the typical monolingual American.
He said, “Look around. Anything significant about
the people you see?” I looked around and it turned out I was the only
person in the lunch room who wasn’t Indian. He said “Learn an Indian
language”.

So I bought every Hindi book, CD ROM, and video I could find and
started watching Bollywood movies for fun. Within a year or so I was
pretty conversational. I started teaching my wife, Kelly, Hindi as well, and we
used it as a secret language when we were out in public.

Kannada Script
Photo by Asha Susan

Based on my self-driven Indian cultural immersion, when an opportunity
came up at the big company I worked for to have someone expatriate to India to help set up a
software development center, I was the first choice. My wife and I
spent a year and a half living in Bangalore trying to
blend in like real Indians (except for the physical appearance thing of
course).

Veena
Photo by J.P. Dalb�ra

We took two private Hindi classes per week plus I took
Kannada and studied the Veena
twice a week each as well. The Veena lessons were particularly cool
because the teacher didn’t speak very much English at all and wrote
all the music in Kannada script, which I had
taught myself over a long weekend after we moved to Bangalore (I discovered that after learning to read
Hindi, it was relatively easy to learn any Indian language’s writing system). Knowing that I couldn’t have succeeded in these Veena lessons had I been limited to English was extremely empowering.

While in India, we were fearless. We walked the back streets of Bangalore where westerners don’t go. We weren’t afraid to find our own transportation or do our own business anywhere, despite the huge cultural differences and language barriers. And when we went up North where everyone spoke Hindi, we didn’t have to worry about trying to find cab drivers who spoke English. We were able to go to small villages and talk to anyone we encountered. We got to see what India was really like and to experience the immense warmth of its people, which we’ve discovered is multiplied when you even try to say “Hello” or “Thank you” in their language.

Me and some children around Agra

The benefit of learning Hindi didn’t stop at the Indian border. All of this led to another of the best experiences of my life. When
we were about to head home from India, my wife got an email from a
non-profit group in Louisville, Kentucky (our home/destination) that
supported Tibetan monastic refugees: “Help! Does anyone speak Tibetan
or Hindi?”. The director of the non-profit
(http://www.drepunggomang.com) was desperate and half-joking when she
sent the request. They had just moved a senior monk from an monastery
in India to Kentucky to lead a dharma center when the local
Tibetan translator had immigration problems and was suddenly no longer allowed to stay
in the US. The monk didn’t speak any English, so the dharma center was basically
stuck there with him without anyone who could help communicate. We didn’t know a whole lot about Tibetan Buddhists at the time but decided it wouldn’t hurt to help, so we responded saying we spoke Hindi and were due back in Kentucky in a week.

Geshe Sangay Gyatso

This started a long relationship with the institute which included a
stint with both of us serving as directors. We also became very close friends
with Geshe Sangay Gyatso from whom we learned a
lot about Tibetan culture and Mahayana Buddhism. He even lived with us
for a while. The center was in between lodging arrangments for him, so it made perfect sense for him to stay
with us since we could all communicate. We had developed a family-like relationship. He stayed with us for about a month. I remember the smell of incense and the sound of chanting coming out of his room every morning as he
practiced his faith. It was a seriously humbling and life-changing experience to let
the pressures of corporate life reflect from his perspective after
work each day.

Being Geshe Sangay’s translator led us to amazing
experiences, including a lot of dialog with the spiritual leaders of
Louisville when we attended and participated in interfaith events. One of the highlights of these experiences was when I
had the opportunity to tour the gardens of The Abbey of Gethsemani while translating
for the recently retired abbot of the Drepung Gomang Monastery in India. I believe I’m one
of very few non-monks to see the full beauty of the Abbey, and it’s an experience I’ll never forget.

As the direct result of learning Hindi (and now a little Tibetan and Kannada), I’ve had some of the greatest career, cultural, social, and spiritual experiences of my life. I’ve made dear friends I could never have met or communicated with, and I’ve learned things that would have been much harder to learn without the language skills. Is learning a language a good use of your time? Absolutely.