When Dr. Oliver Sacks turned 80, he regretted a couple of things he had not done but should have done in his life. Language-learning was one of them.
Dr. Sacks speaks only English, and he is sorry that he never learnt foreign languages. When a scientist like him reaches his eighties and deplores not having learnt another tongue we should reflect on it and take heed, lest we miss that opportunity and fall into that ditch when we reach the same age.
Professor of Neurology at N.Y. University; the author of Awakenings (turned into a film starring Robin Williams and Robert de Niro, Despertares, in Spanish) and The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Dr. Oliver Sacks wrote “The Joy of Old Age (No kidding)” (NY Times, July 6, 2013) in which he expressed his ideas about his birthday and his memories, and mentioned a few regrets he had about what he should have done in his life and did not do. Let me quote:
“I am sorry I have wasted (and still waste) so much time; I am sorry to be as agonizingly shy at 80 as I was at 20; I am sorry that I speak no languages but my mother tongue and that I have not traveled or experienced other cultures as widely as I should have done.” (my emphasis).
It struck me as odd that a scientist like Dr. Sacks would feel sorry for occurrences in his past. He regrets something which to me is paramount: not having learnt foreign languages. Dr. Sacks, so he says, speaks only one, his mother tongue, and in the quote above he regrets that. He regrets not having studied foreign languages, turning 80. And because he did not speak tongues he did not have the possibility of enjoying other cultures, different cultures from his own. Now, at 80, he sees the value of being in touch, through languages, with other civilizations, different ways of appreciating reality, life.
Dr. Sacks did not say so in so many words, but he did break a lance in favor of languages. He has become, at 80, a champion of other cultures and the value they have for the growth of man. We must take heed because he is a wise and respected man and because “At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age” he tells us.
There is no turning the clock back and it would be unfair –perhaps unwise- to do so. Events keep marching on, and time flows through eternity and in our minds, and our present regrets are uncalled for because our actions in the past were often carried out to the best of our knowledge and ability.
My purpose today is to wish that all of us reach 80 without the regrets Dr. Sacks had turning that age: Not having learnt or preserved languages, thus missing first-hand appreciation of varied cultures that the knowledge of tongues affords. Thank you, Dr. Sacks for reminding us of the importance of language-learning.