Writing these two words, “Dear Customer,” gets me emotional, for I still remember when we had none. Back in 1987, when Lori and I began Levenger in our townhouse in Boston, it seemed a miracle when people sent us checks in the mail. Almost 30 years later, I still view customers as magically important people—people who trust us to deliver goods and to treat them as we would our best friends. At least that’s how I have always thought of our customers—the same as my best friends.
So, dear friends, I want to share with you what I’m up to these days.
Levenger has a wonderful new CEO named Steve Hansen, who had been our Chief Financial Officer, then a board member, and now this year begins his tenure as CEO. Lori is chair of our board, while yours truly is a board member, along with our two grown sons, Cal and Corey, who are pursuing their own careers. While no family members work in operational roles, Levenger remains a family-owned business. And as always, our staff members are dedicated to helping you with products we hope will inspire your reading, writing and working with ideas. As we say around Levenger, we aren’t saving the world, but our customers are.
As for me, I’m continuing my interest in a well-read life in ways I never would have guessed. I’ve begun a year-long fellowship at Harvard designed for people like me who have finished their first careers and, instead of chasing little white balls around Florida fairways, think they have enough spunk left to tackle some sort of social challenge.
This turn of events began about six years ago, when I started studying Spanish.
Like millions of monolingual Americans, I was frustrated at speaking only one language and finally decided to do something about it. It was slow going because most days I devoted only a few minutes to listening to an audio program, or studying flash cards. But at cocktail parties, when I mentioned I was studying Spanish, many people would gaze off with a pained expression and say something like, “I took eight years of French and can’t say two sentences.”
Others, in a whispered voice, would ask how I was doing it. “Do you use, what is it, Rosetta Stone?” They seemed to be hoping I’d discovered a silver bullet, like those ads that say, “Speak Italian in 10 days.”
After hearing that I was doing lots of little things, like listening to Pimsleur audio programs when I worked out, and had changed my phone, car and ATM over to Spanish, and was taking weekly lessons with a tutor, some would say, “Well, the only way to really learn a language is total immersion, and I can’t do that right now.”
Even more people would say, “Why bother? The whole world speaks English.” And a few said, “Why bother? Technology will make it obsolete. In the future we’ll probably all have glasses or implants that will do the translation for us.”
These questions and opinions got me curious. Given that we’re a nation of immigrants (except for Native Americans), how did we lose all those languages? How do Europeans actually get all those languages under their belts? And what about the rest of the world? Are most people monolinguals like us? Is English really taking over the world?
The more I read books like Bilingual by François Grosjean, and The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond, and listened to the lectures of John McWhorter on linguistics, the more interested I became. And the more I learned how very peculiar our monolingual situation is. I began to wonder whether America is doomed to continue as an eighty-percent monolingual nation, or whether we might change—whether it might be possible for everyone to speak English, plus another language.
As is typical with me, I bore my friends at every opportunity with what I’ve recently learned. One such friend, patiently listening to me over a lunch, was Doug Rauch, the former president of Trader Joe’s and current CEO of Conscious Capitalism. Doug mentioned that he had done a fellowship at Harvard that was instrumental in helping him engage the social challenges he was passionate about—food waste, poverty, hunger and health. At Harvard he came up with his plan for opening a store that would take in food discarded by grocery stores—food that was still good—and cook it into healthy food to be sold at the prices of fast food. His project, Daily Table, opens this year in an inner-city neighborhood in Boston.
As Doug talked, I thought the Harvard program might be a good place for me to learn more about multilingualism and what might be optimal for America. So I applied, was accepted, and now am in the midst of it.
There are about forty of us Fellows from around the world in what’s called the Advanced Leadership Initiative. In addition to taking a class in leadership case studies, we each audit whatever classes around the university appeal to us (so long as professors agree to take us in). I’m taking two courses—one, cross-listed between anthropology and the Divinity School called Quests for Wisdom: Religious, Moral and Aesthetic Experiences in the Art of Living. It is illuminating and deeply moving, with marvelous readings and movies. The other is intermediate Spanish, which I take with eleven students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, and it’s kicking my butt.
One problem is that these students are way too smart. I’m still writing my name on the top of the sheet when they start getting up to hand in their tests. And I find myself sitting there hoping the teacher doesn’t call on me. Even though my grade doesn’t count for anything, peer pressure, after all these years, still works.
I’m grateful for the embarrassing riches in experiences here at Harvard, even if I have a few embarrassing episodes in class. And in the meantime, I’m asking questions about language I wouldn’t have thought to ask. For example...
- Given that children ages 0 to 5 can learn two or even three languages simultaneously without any degradation of those languages, and that being bilingual offers many advantages in life, do children have a right to be raised bilingually?
- Might bilingualism be a matter of public health?
- Should the US adopt a language goal? Like maybe English plus one? If we did, could we achieve it? (The European Union, I was surprised to learn, has an explicit language goal for its 430 million citizens, which is native language plus two. And those smartypants are making progress towards this goal, according to the regular measurements they carry out.)
- Would expecting American students to get serious about a second language interfere with more fundamental learning of math and reading in English? How do we explain that nearly all the many countries that are ahead of the US on the international PISA test also emphasize multilingual education?
At this point, I have more questions than answers, but I sense that our country might indeed change dramatically if our expectations change.
Then again, I’m ignorant of a lot of facts. Around the campus, I’ve met scholars who doubt Americans will ever escape their insularity and arrogance.
I’ll send periodic reports from my interviews with experts and language learners like me. And I want your thoughts along the way. Frankly, I’ll need your feedback to help to figure how our great country can become greater.