After Steve Leveen retired from business, took a foray into learning Spanish and returned to university for two more years of education – he already had a PhD – aimed at kindling a second profession, he began to describe himself as a “recovering monolingual” and set his sights on inspiring his fellow Americans to embrace bilingualism.
To that effort, which he fired up in 2016 with his podcast series “America the Bilingual,” Leveen brought a striking glass-half-full mentality.
“The United States has an exciting opportunity to tilt toward bilingualism,” he emphasizes, while acknowledging that there are “historical and cultural forces conspiring to keep us monolingual.
“People said some of the strangest things when they heard I was promoting bilingualism and learning Spanish. ‘Why bother?’ they’d say, ‘Everyone speaks English!’ or ‘Why bother? Pretty soon we’ll all have Google implants in our heads for translating.’”
But now that Leveen and his podcast producer Fernando Hernandez, a young media expert who also does the “Latino USA” series for National Public Radio, have generated more than 36 episodes of “America the Bilingual,” they hardly seem to notice American monolingualism, and focus instead on the strides made by bilingualism.
For example, while Leveen laments the passage in the 1990s of a proposition in California outlawing bilingual education in public schools, it is only to note that “on the night Trump won the election – a night that will live in infamy – Californians also voted to overthrow that bad proposition.”
Although Leveen is interested in all languages, not just Spanish, as an American he has come to focus on Spanish as the natural language for American English speakers to add to their repertoire of one.
“We’re fortunate in the United States to be so near Spanish,” he says. “It’s a beautiful and important language. And it’s close enough to English that it’s relatively easy to learn. I’d say that everyone in the Americas should know both English and Spanish.”
So Leveen advocates, not only for English speakers to learn Spanish, but also for teaching English to people who want to learn it. Accordingly, many “America the Bilingual” podcasts focus on that, including one which came out Wednesday, “A Tidal Wave of Love,” about a successful program pioneered by the late John Rassias at Dartmouth, instructing Mexican teachers how to better teach English.
“A study by the Inter-American Development Bank showed the program has worked very well; it’s been good for Mexican schoolchildren,” Leveen emphasizes.
He said he is very interested in expat communities in Mexico, such as San Miguel de Allende and Ajijic, surmising that Guadalajara Reporter readers may be especially interested in his number 16 podcast, “Bless the Late-blooming Bilingual.” That segment profiles an American woman, Robin Loving, who came to San Miguel in her fifties on a mission to help girls, got a tutor to improve her high-school Spanish, and used it to volunteer at a shelter for girls in great need. On top of that, she founded a group, Jovenes Adelante (Get ahead, young people), which gives university scholarships to local youth.
Leveen sees Loving as a shining example of the benefits of bilingualism, mentioning that San Miguel has 100 charitable groups founded by resident expats. He explains that he hasn’t yet visited Guadalajara or Lake Chapala, but wonders if the large expat community here gets immersed in Spanish and reaches out to help locals learn English or if they tend to stay “in their English bubble.”
After several years of his podcasts, Leveen now answers that discouraging rhetorical question –Why bother to learn another language because everyone in the world speaks English – with a thought-provoking rejoinder.
“It’s not true that the whole world speaks English, but it’s almost true that the whole world wants to learn it,” he notes, explaining that the business market for English eclipses that of all other languages combined.
“I believe that native English speakers in Mexico have a great opportunity to learn Spanish, and also an obligation to be teachers.
“Bilingual societies are stronger,” he says, displaying a touch of idealism. “While the ability to speak one another’s languages is no formula for peace, as civil wars readily testify, the process of learning the language of another group is inherently pacifying.”
Visit americathebilingual.com or on Twitter @steveleveen. Leveen’s podcasts are free using iTunes.