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From Nadia Dowshen's, "Urban Guerrilla," Fall '99 From Nadia Dowshen's, "Urban Guerrilla," Fall '99On the island of Puerto Rico, people speak Spanish. Unfortunately, though I'm proficient by Penn standards, I do not. I know the essentials: how to get a hotel room, order vegetarian food and find a bathroom. But I am often mistaken for a native speaker and at times during the week people began speaking to me in Spanish, leaving me embarrassed when I couldn't respond. Expending the effort to formulate a question or comment in Spanish and then getting a response that I could not comprehend frustrated me even more. My Puerto Rico experience made me realize the importance of knowing another language -- and knowing it well. I admire Penn's efforts to ensure that its students learn other languages but I don't think most of us learn them in a way that prepares us to communicate with clients, friends, patients and colleagues that happen to speak a different language. In my experience with Penn's Spanish language program, the courses leading up to the proficiency focus mostly on reading, writing and grammar. But the only way to learn to communicate in another language is to practice speaking it. Even though I disappointed myself in Puerto Rico, I learned more Spanish then and during a one-month trip to Guatemala than I did in my entire four semesters at Penn. Although many language classes do not emphasize speaking skills, Penn does provide opportunities for many students to become fluent through study abroad programs in almost every country in the world. Many of these programs also teach students to negotiate the cultural differences that come along with the language gap. However, I don't think we need to be shipped off to other countries to learn how to communicate across language and cultural barriers. We should take advantage of the linguistic diversity in our own backyard. Asian, Latino and other immigrant communities now make up a large portion of Philadelphia's population. Coincidentally, many of these immigrant groups need to learn English in order to acculturate and to be successful in the job market. Penn undergrads could learn a great deal about how to communicate with people who speak other languages by exchanging English for these immigrants native languages. It's time that universities and our educational system as a whole get serious about teaching people to communicate across language and culture. Knowing another language -- and how to speak it well -- is a marketable skill and makes cross-cultural and language experiences more meaningful. Indeed, most other countries begin to teach their children multiple languages at a younger age than we do in the United States. No woman or man is an island and at the rate that our nation's population is diversifying linguistically, your cross-cultural communication will be severely limited if you don't know how to speak another language. Last week my limited Spanish speaking ability may have made my vacation a little less enjoyable, but as a future physician, in a few years not being able to speak Spanish may well render me incapable of doing my job -- providing health care services to people who may or may not speak English.

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