The biggest change

Irene Waters asked in her challenge “Times past” (https://irenewaters19.com/times-past/) what has been the biggest change during our lifetime.

I was born in 1959 and when I grew up hardly anyone in my environment spoke English. My mother had attended a “Volksschule” where English wasn’t taught and my father went to “Realschule” where English was taught only on a very simple level.

I went to a gymnasium and thus had English lessons for 8 years. When after my Abitur in 1979 I decided to spend a year in the US it was still something unusual to do and a big adventure. If you wanted to improve your English or French you went to the UK or France as an au-pair, but not many did it, as living in a foreign country still had the flair of exclusiveness about it. Not few of my former schoolmates stayed in my hometown Lüneburg, and most, like me, have not moved far away, but live in nearby Hamburg or other towns close by.

Being able to speak English and having lived in another country has widened my horizon. Travelling has become normal for my generation, and almost everybody is having dinner in Persian, Indian, Vietnamese, Greek, Japanese, Spanish, Portugese, Italian, Turkish or Syrian restaurants.

Nowadays children start learning English at elementary school and all types of  schools teach it. Most children at gymnasium spend one or two semesters abroad, and it is not unusual that they go as far as Australia or New Zealand. Studying abroad has become common and there are many programs like “work and travel” that make it affordable for young people to see the world. At the same time we have foreign students in our schools and universities and even those, who cannot spend time abroad, will have contact with kids from other nations.

While at school in Hamburg my younger son had friends from Indonesia, Australia and Turkey and Africa. My older son, now living in Berlin, has friends from all over the world, he has spent a year in South Africa and he has traveled to almost every continent. At the age of 29 he has seen much more of the world than I have, even though I have never been afraid to leave my familiar surroundings.

I work with a very young team. Almost all of them have spent a year in another country. Some of them are children of immigrants and bilingual. They ask for holidays because they want to attend a wedding in Britain or visit a friend in Japan. All of them are fluent in English and at least one other language. They are able and willing to communicate with people from all over the world. Many travel with “Airbnb” or are backpacking. They want to get to know other countries and make contact with people living there rather than staying in a secluded beach resort.

The generation now in their twenties is not very political. They are concentrated on their careers and on building their own lives and having fun. At the same time they are open and have contacts around the world. Social media and communication technology makes staying in touch easier. My sons’ generation has learned to respect and tolerate different cultures; they grew up with the awareness that there are different ways of living and looking at the world. I have hope that this young generation will help overcome prejudices and nationalism. We need people with intercultural competences and a self-conception of being cosmopolites. They have the potential to be the bridge and the translators between countries and cultures and contribute to peace and understanding. Every child learning at least one foreign language and the possibilities of using the language by more possibilities to travel and communicate is one of the most important changes I can think of. It could contribute to keep peace, because, after all, who wants a war (or even a trade war) causing damage to friends?