Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Lingua Franca

The documentary "Speaking in Tongues" came on PBS this evening. The single most depressing thing about it is the idea, stated by and attributed to America parents, that children can only learn a single language - any new language that they learn must damage their understanding and facility with English.

I understand why language is so important to people, and why it's such an issue in the United States - for Americans, there is an undercurrent of resentment of the perceived rejection of America and American culture that learning other languages represents. This is sometimes semi-diplomatically couched in the need for a common language, but the old joke: "If English was good enough for the Baby Jesus, it's good enough for you" is never far from the surface. By the same token, many immigrant families see preservation of the mother tongue as an essential part of resisting overall homogenization, and see the American desire for everyone to speak English as a continuation of a program of cultural extermination dating back to colonial times. These were concepts I was well aware of. But the idea that children must learn a single language exclusively in order to reach maximum fluency is a new one for me, and it's bothersome, if for no other reason than it seems to be little more than a cover for a yet another variety of pride in ignorance - especially given the generally poor fluency that many Americans demonstrate with English.

But no matter what the reason, it's a problem that needs a solution. On the one hand, it is a lot easier to communicate with people when you share a common language. On the other hand, the United States is one of the few nations on Earth where one can be considered highly educated, yet not speak a second language, and being able to communicate with others in their own languages (or simply understand them) is becoming more and more important.

Right now I often think that Americans are convinced that the rest of the world needs us more than we need them and so they should have to learn our language. If that's true, there is a rude awakening in store, because even if they need us now, they won't need us forever.

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