Why Learning Foreign Languages For Students Is Elitist
Let us be honest. We are talking about a few languages: Spanish, French, German, or Italian. Is the world going to be a better place, American kids more sensitized to the plight of the world's poor, by students learning another Western language? Among middle class professionals, Spanish is already seen as an easy language with low social prestige value--too many poor and working class folks speak it, they observe. Yet as someone who knows the language, its advanced grammar is more difficult than French.
People retain their parochialism regardless of the number of languages they know. The multi-lingual Germans (whose country I love deeply) have been absolutely horrible to the Turks living there. Because they lacked German ancestry, until recently most Turks, even those born in Germany, were disqualified from earning citizenship. Blood worship trumped a cosmopolitan commitment to equal rights.
The Dutch who are awesomely talented at languages are still disabled when it comes to the social integration of Moroccan citizens and residents in the Netherlands. Like many Germans, they too appear uninterested in truly understanding and embracing the cultures of their non-native residents.
Bilingual education as it is conceived cannot bring about the desired expanded consciousness of the world's poor and neglected because it is based on a Eurocentric emphasis on western languages.
If educators really wanted to promote inter-cultural global awareness, they ought to advocate the study of non-western languages. When was the last time you heard of any of them drafting curricular reforms mandating the study of Swahili, Urdu, Arabic, Chinese, or even one of the several Native American languages home grown, spun and practiced right here on the myriad reservations? These languages lack social prestige, plain and simple. Very few will want to learn them because the social and monetary rewards in mastering them are disproportionate to the difficulty of achieving proficiency.
The June 10, 2002, edition of Time reports in an article “Tongues that Go Out of Style,” a call on linguists to take note of the world’s endangered languages. Some of these languages have only three speakers, such as Oro Win in Lowland Amazonia. Experts predict that by 2050, 50% of the world’s current languages will be extinct. Here is a brief compilation of some of the “endangered” languages: in Europe, Faeroese, which has around 50,000 speakers. Apparently this language is not under the protection of the European minority-language bureau because the Faeroe Islands do not belong to the European Union. Yiddish has been in decline since World War II. Sardinian, from the Italian island of Sardinia faces danger of extinction. In Australia, aboriginal languages such as Wanyi, Wakka Wakka and Kullilli are dying at a rate of one every three years. In the Middle East, Jesus’ native tongue of Aramaic boasts a measly 400,000 speakers. In China there is an earnest attempt to rescue the world’s only language for women, Nushu, from extinction. Pennsylvania German (or “Dutch”) has 85,000 speakers left. Several Native American languages are fading, as is Gulah, a tongue spoken by former slave descendents on small islands off South Carolina and Georgia. Piraha, another Lowland Amazonian tongue in South America, has 300 speakers left in North America.Authentic multiculturalism anyone?
As for academics in philology and classics departments who revive the idea of teaching Latin and ancient Greek in high school, only necrophiliacs would dream of burdening students with dead languages for which there is no concomitant emotional sphere in which to socialize, dream, and engage your humanity. The Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger got one thing right: language is the house of being. What happens to the being—the human center—of kids who are force-fed a diet of dead words they have no human way of exercising emotionally? The study of Latin is an intellectually and emotionally crippling exercise. There are no opportunities for conversing in it because it is no longer a spoken language.
American kids do not need to become bilingual. They need to be reached out to in their own language and assisted in recognizing their disowned voices first. Forget about devoting precious moral energy to AIDS education in America! In this age of cheap condoms those who get the disease from unprotected sex—such as the current crop of under twenty-five daredevil bare-backers who've never known a soul to die from AIDS—are carrying out unconscious death wishes. Alienation, stress, and social anxiety are the epidemics afflicting and killing the hearts of our American kids.