The Year in Review stories have already begun to appear. Undoubtedly, many of the stories will summarize the political battles in Washington and America’s midterm elections. But what really stands out as I look back on the year is how many truly attention-grabbing stories were based beyond our borders.
As the year began, Haiti became the focus of the entire world — with one of the world’s most devastating earthquakes ravaging the nation and its capital of Port-au-Prince on January 12. For weeks afterward, the media reported the human tragedy of more than 230,000 dead; tent cities for the survivors; the logistical challenge of getting international aid to the right place; and the back story of Haiti’s economic and political problems before the earthquake. We struggled to understand what the survivors were going through and watched American and international volunteers offer help at the scene. In Kreyol, in the French-based creole spoken by the Haitian people, the survivors shared details of the disasters they faced and the small victories they experienced. In the process, the importance of language was underscored and illuminated.
Plenty of other events on foreign soil captured our attention: the monetary crises involving Greece and Ireland; the continuing conflict between North and South Korea; certainly the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; and even the trial and other legal battles of Amanda Knox, the young American woman convicted of murder in Italy.
But probably no world event — with the possible exception of the Gulf (of Mexico) oil spill — held us in its grip as much as the 68-day rescue of 33 Chilean miners. We all got an unprecedented look at the day-to-day survival strategies of a group of workers trapped underground. When the miners finally began to emerge out of the rescue shaft, more than 1,300 international journalists were at the scene. The Nielsen Co. reported 10.6 million people were watching CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News during the rescue of the first miner. There were 4 million page views per minute of online news, and Spanish-language networks Telemundo and Univision offered live coverage for hours at a time.
Clearly, the human drama of reunited families, heroism, and even a love triangle couldn’t be communicated without translation and interpretation of Spanish — formal, colloquial, and slang — that the Chilean miners spoke to each other, their families, and their rescuers.
A deeper appreciation of our humanity — a bigger world — opens to us when we know a language beyond our own. Like 2010, 2011 will produce a time we’ve never known before. The year will be richest for those who experience it multilingually.