US-Mexico — appreciating the value of languages

With the continuing impasse between the US and Mexico, one starts to wonder how to change the paradigm. Politicians, keen to score a few points, won’t hesitate criticizing the other country for its problems. It’s just too easy at times. However, policymakers should take a step back and remember the bigger picture. They could learn from France and Germany to hammer out differences, move on and promote common agenda items, with wider implications for an entire continent.

Franco-German reconciliation

The city of Strasbourg on the Franco-German border is a unique city — too French for Germany, too German for France — the city changed hands several times in the late 1800s until World War I and was in German hands during World War II. It has remained French since 1945.

Strasbourg now hosts a number of European institutions, which have forged common ground in the post-World War II era. Is it the most efficient and best coordinated? Certainly not, but it sure beats the biblical carnage that crawled its way across Europe in the 1940s. European integration started with coal and steel — economic purposes brought these two countries (and others) together. Over the decades, this cooperation has moved into culture, education, health and security. Even diametrically opposed political agendas deepened the initial rapprochement in the post-World War II years — France’s President Francis Mitterrand was a committed socialist while German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was a Christian Democrat.

Language as a cultural window

In 1992, France and Germany jointly funded ARTE, a television channel with a cultural focus available in both countries, with joint programming and administrations. Headquartered in Strasbourg, its employees, hail from both countries and are bilingual.

Programming is dubbed or more often sub-titled, so that each country’s citizens can not only take in the other’s culture, but also its language. So successful, ARTE is expanding into English, Spanish and Polish. Parts of the German government have considered a German-Turkish ARTE to further understanding of that special, yet at times troubled, relationship.

Looking at the US, one can’t help but wonder how many non-native fluent Spanish speaking Americans are actually out there and whether an American-Mexican channel (based in San Diego and Tijuana) could starting bridging the divide?

The financial and cultural value of languages

Over the course of 25 years, I have been lucky enough to learn French, German and Russian. Although daunting to learn at the beginning, this knowledge has allowed me to understand the importance of mushroom picking in a Russian forest, the intricacies of corruption in Central Asia, the French subtleties of a Louis de Funès movie, or hitchhiking tips on a German autobahn. This experience has enabled me to partially enter the soul of these cultures and work in these countries. My two children, growing up on the Franco-German border, are able to understand both cultures through respective languages in addition to English. That asset is not only cultural and educational — it’s also financial. It begs the question — how many non-native Spanish speakers really understand the culture south of our border? How much does their potential lack of cultural knowledge of the countries south of the US border drive their fear of Latin America?

US and Mexico — setting the tone for the Western Hemisphere

Looking at San Diego and Los Angeles, what would those cities look like without immigrants? Or Cancun and Puerto Vallarta for that matter? Both sets bring positives and negatives. However, our fates are somehow tied together, whether we like it or not. We collectively need to acknowledge that and realize that no wall, real or imagined, will solve our common problems. We must resist temptation and turn our fear of the other into curiosity, or at the very least, create a new awareness about what we consider the “other”.

Indeed the US-Mexico relationship should be the cornerstone of relations in the Western Hemisphere. It is through that lens that both countries should engineer a common future that acknowledges common interests (narcotic supply and demand, economic development, natural disasters) and concerns (immigration). The benefits of working together and helping to set the hemisphere’s agenda, from the Bering Strait to the Tierra del Fuego, are immeasurable.

That relationship can only be strong though if it is based on respect, in which tone is an integral element, and a genuine dialogue, not debate, exists on both sides. Understanding the culture and language of each is a crucial foundation of that relationship.

Richard Dion is the Executive Director of the Bridge Museum (

This piece originally appeared on in July

© 2020 Bridge Museum 

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