2017 Hall of Fame Nominee

Michele Whaley

West High School
Anchorage, AK
2017 Finalist from PNCFL

What is the value of language? One might as well ask, “What is the value of breathing?” “Language is a people’s greatest treasure,” says Sholokhov. Language, as Russians say about their poet Pushkin, is our “all.”

Our Nigerian custodian shocked my students when he told them that he spoke nine languages, and was less fluent in five others. He needed these languages for basic, daily transactions at home. My Dutch relatives always suggest we speak in a language that is a second one for both parties. They claim that while the person speaking her first language feels confident, the person speaking a second language is actually more powerful in a conversation. A second language for both levels the playing field. While these relatives won’t let my husband speak the Dutch he has mastered, they respect him for keeping up with them in French.

Language gives us power. The ability to communicate feelings, philosophy and beliefs is what makes us human. Being able to do so across age, gender, cultural and national boundaries is what connects us to other humans. Nelson Mandela said, “When you speak to a man in his language, you go to his heart.”

When we realize that the new sounds coming from our mouths hold meaning, there is a sense of power. I felt this power for the first time in 1987 when a woman approached me for directions to a Moscow address that I had requested moments before. I was able to direct her in Russian and watch, then follow, as she turned and bolted in the direction I needed to go. I felt I had the keys to a new kingdom! One of my students recently reported that she was asked to “translate” for a Russian man at church until his real interpreter arrived. Since she had just two months of Russian under her belt, she felt hesitant until she realized that she knew enough to give him a lifeline. She felt joyous power being able to effectively communicate.

As we acquire a language, we gain more and more of a people’s treasure. We discover a fresh perspective on everything from gestures and food to history, from art and music to politics. Experiencing the products of a culture opens our eyes and sharpens our brains. True language acquisition changes our lives while changing our hearts and minds, even as it enhances the effect we have on others.

Like breathing, language acquisition can be shallow or deep. True second-language acquisition and strong lungs both require time and dedication, but the rewards are great. I am blessed to guide students toward the miraculous power of a second language and culture.