Why Learn A Foreign Language?

Want to see millions of North Americans experience apoplexy (incapacity or speechlessness caused by extreme anger)?

Insist they become fully conversant in a foreign language!

This is ironical because wherever you go in the United States, at least, from airports and train stations, to Wal-Mart, Costco and Barnes & Noble – even virtual behemoths like Amazon – you’ll see displays of, if not solicited to buy, language learning books and software.

Merely search “Spanish software” on Amazon and 190-pages appear, including Instant Immersion, Rosetta Stone, Fluenz, Learn To Speak, Language Trek, eLanguage, Visual Link, JumpStart, Berlitz, SmartPolyglot, Hooked On, The Learning Company, and, well . . . you get the picture.

If there is such an evident commercial, even educational, push to learn another language, why are we as a nation still so monolingual?

Partly because it’s still too common that required school language courses are taught by non-native or non-fully conversant speakers, who teach grammar and vocabulary but do not insist on full language immersion from day one. This is true for my three girls currently enrolled at elementary, intermediate, and high school.

Partly because as a nation we have been for more than a century, and remain-to-this-day, a “superpower.” Power and privilege generally imply that “the others” have to accommodate themselves to you. NO, I’m not even slightly suggesting this is the way it should be! Power should imply responsibility versus privilege.

I propose that the millions of North Americans, who annually go on mission trips, studies abroad, frequent bucket list vacations, or who start non-profits to eradicate hunger or water shortages in such-and-such African countries, should seriously, as a precondition for going or doing, set a goal of attaining a minimum of Level 2 or 3 (out of 5) proficiency (Limited to Professional) in the language of destination prior to departure.

Why this is important . . .

I could justifiably say “for world peace,” and in the long-term and grand scale of things this is true.

Practically speaking, learning the other’s language minimizes you or your group’s potential (or propensity) to misrepresent the people, culture and country you visit or “help” when you return back home.

The annals of adventure travelogues and missionary correspondence overflow with false witness and disparaging stereotype, which as we know (yet few of us WASPS have experienced), once spoken or visually projected has the insidious power to become the persistent manner by which the world speaks about and views “the other.”

For example, for the past 300 years, portrayal of blacks as savages and heathens, corresponded to a like-treatment of them. According to Winthrop Jordan, former National Book Award-winning historian who wrote several influential works on American slavery and race relations, “Negroes were from the very first encounters with Europeans likened to beasts.”

Why? Because in Africa there resided a beast that was like a man. That is, whites encountered blacks at almost precisely the same time as they encountered apes.  Unfortunately for blacks, this led to rabid European speculations, which incorporated centuries-old traditions with the coincidence of simultaneous ape/African contact.  It resulted in the inevitable correlation of similarities between the “man-like beasts and the beast-like men of Africa.”

Expending the time and many embarrassed frustrations of learning a foreign language also conveys the message(s): “I see you! We are on this life journey together. I value your perspective and way of life equally with my own. Neither of our ways of life or worldview is without fault, yet through sharing and listening to our respective personal and cultural narratives we will respect and honor each other. In respecting each other’s dignity, we will each, then, be open to hearing the candid criticisms we each might need to hear.”

This raises a critical question . . .

What should be the principle reason or motivation to learn a foreign language?

I realize this likely will be met with some derision, yet from my bi-cultural, American and African life experience, I believe most of my fellow Americans might be inclined to learn a foreign language primarily to speak, to tell, or to ask – so as to navigate in and around a foreign country and culture. As a 19th century American missionary to southeast Africa voiced his motivation to learn isiZulu, “I trust however that I shall understand enough of the language to explain to the people the way of salvation.”

I believe the principle reason to study a language should be TO LISTEN. And in listening, TO HEAR. And in hearing, TO UNDERSTAND.

LanguageBlog

A 19th century English clergyman to southeast Africa, John W. Colenso, expressed these thoughts about itinerant travelers and fellow missionaries, “I doubt if they have been able—or willing if able—to sit down, hour by hour, in closest friendly intercourse with natives of all classes, and in the spirit of earnest, patient, research, with a full command of the native language, have sought to enter, as it were, within the [native’s] heart.”

Long before there was language software or language schools, Colenso became fluent in isiZulu through no special skills except diligence, hard work, and a willingness to work and live in near proximity to those people, whose language he wanted to learn.

Of this experience he stated, “I have no special gift for languages, but what is shared by most educated men of fair ability.  What I have done, I have done by hard work—by sitting day after day, from early morn to sunset, till they, as well as myself, were fairly exhausted—conversing with them as well as I could, and listening to them conversing,—writing down what I could of their talk from their own lips, and, when they were gone, still turning round again to my desk, to copy out the results of the day.”

Now . . . in case you’ve been thinking “Scott must be a linguist also,” let me dispel that thought! Unlike my wife who is fluent in Spanish, German, English, and conversant in Zulu, Venda and Swahili, languages do not come easily to me. This is largely due to my having bi-lateral high frequency hearing loss, which practically means that in noisy environments initial word consonants are indiscernible due to them being high-frequency. In short, in noisy contexts it’s often like trying to decipher meaning by hearing only vowels and a consonant or two – imagine Wheel of Fortune contestants!

BUT . . . given my own state and nation’s current and rapidly changing demographics, I’m enrolled in a Spanish course at a local community college, and I do possess Level 3 proficiency in Swahili and Venda.

Would you join me in committing to learn another/foreign language? 

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Filed under Culture and Africa, Life, Mentor, Perspective, Relationships

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