While discussing the pros and cons of learning a second language, my brother Jay R reminded me of the story about a mouse that was being bullied by a big, ugly cat. The beleaguered mouse poured out its soul to an even tinier mouse who, upon hearing the sad tale, promised to be of help. “How could you possibly be of help to me?” asked the forlorn, scared rodent. “I’m afraid I’m doomed!” “Never fear,” said the second mouse; “I know a second language.”
The next time the cocky cat cornered his quivering prey, the second mouse jumped out of hiding and loudly growled, snarled and barked at the attacker who turned tail and quickly disappeared. “That was amazing,” said the much relieved rodent. “How did you do that?”
“It was easy,” said the rescuer. “That’s the benefit of knowing a second language.”
In 1959 a movie was released entitled “The Mouse That Roared” starring Peter Sellers and Jean Seberg. It was about the world’s tiniest country, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, that had fallen on hard fiduciary times. Its economy was in a shambles due to someone having duplicated its only export, a certain fine wine. The country’s politicians racked their brains trying to find a way out of the seemingly unresolvable monetary crisis. Then someone came up with an idea. “All we have to do,” he said, “is to lose a war to the United States and our problems are over.”
It was decided to declare war on the United States, lose the war and then accept the largess that the great United States of America customarily bestows on its vanquished foes. The little army, equipped with old-fashioned body armor, and bows and arrows, lays siege to New York City. Through a series of hilarious misadventures, the little army comes into possession of a certain doomsday device that is capable of destroying the world. The United States surrenders to Grand Fenwick leaving the little country in an even worse dilemma. “What do we do now?” they asked. When their countrymen across the sea inquired how the war was proceeding, one Fenwickian replied sheepishly, “We sort of won.” Perhaps learning to produce something other than wine would have served them better.
My Dad was born and raised in Mexico and spoke Spanish flawlessly. As he traveled from town to town he enjoyed sitting in the plazas in order to enjoy the cool evening air. Although he was a Mexican citizen, he was very Anglo in appearance. The unsuspecting shoe shine boys and street vendors would routinely mistake him for a gringo tourist. Assuming he couldn’t understand them, they would poke fun at him and say all kinds of unflattering things about him. He would encourage them by speaking to them in English and then, when he was ready to move on, would drop the bomb that he had understood everything they had said.
My son Shane speaks the language of music. He was an all-state percussionist at his high school in El Paso. He could play anything that required a stick but he was especially fond of four-mallet marimba. Many of the parks and plazas of Mexico featured marimba players. The tourists saw few marimbas in the States and would generously tip a good player. Shane liked to approach the marimba guys and feign curiosity about their instruments. “How do you play that thing?” he would ask. They would try to teach him how to hold the mallets and how to play a few chords. After some rudimentary instruction he would tentatively take two mallets in each hand and promptly launch into some complex classical piece while his “instructors” stood there with mouths askew, surprised and speechless.
We could all benefit from further learning, whether it be acquiring another language or learning some other skill. Education is really acquiring the ability to do something we couldn’t do before. We do not have to fear filling our heads to overflowing. Napoleon Bonaparte said, “My mind is a chest of drawers. When I wish to deal with a subject, I shut all the drawers but the one in which the subject is to be found. When I am wearied, I shut all the drawers and go to sleep.”