Young Man, Young Woman:  Go West! Go East!  Just…Go!

By Shlomo  Maital    

           World Traveller

Each year, New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof chooses an intern, to travel with him and report on ‘neglected issues’.  This year’s winner?  20-year-old Nicole Sganga.   In his column “Go west young people! And east!”,  Kristof makes an interesting point.

   First, a little joke.   If ‘trilingual’ means knowing 3 languages, bilingual means knowing 2 – what is a person called who knows no foreign languages?   Answer: an American.  Most Americans do not have a passport, do not know a foreign language, and do not travel abroad.  The result is an insular nation ignorant of geography and other cultures.

   Kristof notes that of all the 50 American states, the most cosmopolitan, and the best state in which to do business (according to Forbes magazine) is…not New York!  It is..Utah, the state with a large population of Mormons (Church of the Latter Day Saints), a religion not known for liberality.   Why?  Because young Mormons are required to do two years of missionary work in a foreign land, and they return speaking Thai, Mandarin, Korean and a blizzard of languages – 130 languages are spoken in commerce in Utah, as a result!

    Kristof notes that fewer than 10 per cent of US college students study overseas during their undergraduate years. 

    In my country, Israel, young people complete their compulsory army service, then pack a backpack and trek through India, South America, Thailand, anywhere, partly to cleanse themselves of the early-rising army discipline.  One result is to make Israel a very cosmopolitan nation, which I think helps our startups a lot. 

    Kristof suggests: How about if American colleges gave students a semester credit for a gap year spent in a non-English-speaking country?    

     America has paid heavily for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, bungled in part because America had little understanding of the complex cultures of those nations, cultures you can understand only by living there  and learning the language.  So simply as a matter of survival, if America wants to understand this complex often hostile world, more young Americans need to experience other nations.  It’s a matter of national security.    

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