More than 2,200 years ago, King Ptolemy V of Egypt decreed a holiday in honor of gods most of us have never heard of. He decided to have his pronouncement carved into a stone (which we now call the Rosetta Stone) so no one would forget all of the sacrificing, praying and hoopla that went along with holidays back then. PLUS, he would get eternal credit for being a terrific king.
For political reasons, Ptolemy had the decree etched in three different languages: hieroglyphics (the printed language of small pictures and symbols we commonly associate with ancient Egypt), Demotic (the language of the common Egyptians back then) and Ancient Greek.
Nineteen centuries later, this 1680 pound rock/decree was discovered by one of Napoleon’s soldiers at the end of the 1790s. Luckily, it became the focus of archeologists, linguists and an Egyptologist who saw it as a fabulous opportunity to figure out how to read only partially understood hieroglyphics. That opened up a whole new set of opportunities to learn about ancient Egyptians, who could now speak to us from the walls of tombs and temples.
Now, FLASH to 2016….
Every time you get a new item (e.g., digital device, shirt, toy, etc.), it often comes with instructions printed on a modern day Rosetta Stone, like a pamphlet or label. These little messages, usually written in a combination of English and French (required for sales in Canada) or Spanish, Italian, German and perhaps Chinese, offer educators a golden opportunity to teach basic concepts of language. Even if we are not fluent in one of these other languages, with the help of our understanding of the item it is attached to, and English, we probably can recognize at least a few of the non-English words written on a manual.
Taken a step further, studying the foreign words and symbols found on manuals and labels could become a fun and wonderful way to introduce our children to a deeper understanding of languages, cultures and places—a social studies bonanza!
Nearly 7,000 languages exist in the world right now. A select few, like English and French, have become international languages, spoken by bi-, tri- or even quadra-lingual speakers in dozens of countries. They are used by business owners and diplomats in building trade and peace bridges from one community to the next.
U.S. citizens collectively speak nearly 350 languages. So we could all benefit from knowing our fellow Americans who speak a language(s) other than English. Getting to know our neighbors who speak immigrant or indigenous languages could help us (all of us—adults and children) develop concepts and ideas that broaden our understanding and appreciation of our countrymen and the world. Building connections across language communities could only be a good thing.
Using such tools as the ubiquitous Rosetta pamphlets, concepts about the nature and use of language could be taught very early on. Additional resources, like Unite for Literacy’s Mexican Spanish book collection, can help children switch from English to Spanish texts and narrations in the same book. With this multiplicity of readily available resources to hold in their hands, a small window opens into the nature of language and perhaps a more peaceful tomorrow comes into view.