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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Parlez vous … anything?

    If you call someone who knows two languages “”bilingual”” and someone who knows three “”trilingual,”” what do you call someone who only knows one language?

    The answer: an American.

    In addition to being another “”Those dumb Americans!”” joke, this punch line calls attention to what is perhaps the greatest failing of an American education: One can receive a high school diploma or even a college degree with only a scant year or two of foreign language classes under one’s belt. Indeed, younger students who actually want to learn a foreign language may face considerable difficulty. Opportunities for middle school students to learn a foreign language are uncommon, and opportunities for elementary school children are downright rare, despite the fact that children learn languages much more easily at a younger age.

    In a world where more than one billion people can, to some extent, speak English, it may be difficult to see the need for learning a foreign language. But seeming ignorant to multilingual foreigners while traveling abroad isn’t the only consequence of remaining obstinately monolingual. As convenient for native-speakers as it may be for English to be the lingua franca of the modern world (for the time being, anyway), allowing other languages to fall into disuse will begin to erase the histories of their speakers as well.

    Moreover, if English is to be used as a universal language, those who speak it natively but refuse to (or are not presented with opportunities to) learn another language send an unfriendly message to those who have learned it to accommodate us. Knowing only English in an increasingly global society is like going on a date with the rest of the world and not even pretending to reach for your purse when the bill comes. It’s tacky.

    This is especially apparent in the southwestern U.S., where tensions abound between Spanish-speakers and the native English-speakers who are offended by them. But whether you like it or not, America has always been a nation of immigrants, and with the increasing presence of Spanish-speakers in the country over the past few decades, it is clear that the U.S. has not become quite as monolithic as some like to believe it is.

    So far, the only officially proposed ways of handling the situation seem to involve making Spanish-speakers learn English. We either want to do this nicely, by offering English classes for non-native speakers in public schools, or not-so-nicely, by making it impossible for Spanish-speakers to conduct any sort of official business in their native language and leaving the rest up to them.

    The justification for this relies upon the incorrect assumption that to be American is to be an English speaker (as of 2000, 18 percent – nearly one-in-five – weren’t) and the nationalistic assertion that there is something humiliating or otherwise wrong with acknowledging and accommodating significant minority languages. But, in fact, that’s precisely what we should do – it’s what other nations are doing for us, and it would allow Americans to become a part of an interconnected, global culture.

    In keeping us monolingual – by relegating foreign languages to the place of a brief high school rite-of-passage, making it altogether too easy to complete an education with only cursory ability – our school system is doing students a disservice. Ideally, all schoolchildren should receive mandatory foreign language education from a young age; it can serve only to enrich them mentally and culturally. And in the Southwest, especially, the first foreign language learned by native English-speakers should be Spanish.

    When native English-speakers can slip by with only a year or two of foreign language knowledge while non-native speakers must learn enough English to accommodate us, we send the message that foreign languages are defects in need of correction rather than valid means of expression. Of course it is valuable for non-native speakers to know English, especially in predominantly English-speaking countries like the U.S., but it is every bit as valuable for English-speakers to appreciate and be able to communicate with the other cultures with whom we share the world.

    Expanded educational opportunities alone can’t suffice, however – students must also recognize the importance of learning a language and take these opportunities seriously. In college, studying abroad would be an excellent way to remind yourself that foreign languages aren’t just another thing standing between you and your bachelor’s degree. Silly as it sounds, it can be fairly easy to forget that foreign countries are more than something cool you see in the movies.

    Many UA students have already missed their chance to learn a foreign language beyond its basics in high school because of the lack of emphasis placed on doing so, but as long as you’re in college you still have an excellent opportunity to learn one or more of over a dozen languages. Don’t pass it up – it’s your chance to become a citizen of the world.

    Alyson Hill is a senior majoring in classics, German studies and history. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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