Monday, December 08, 2008

English-- our national languish

In 1947, as he was pondering how best to create a new nation that would last, thrive and prosper, one of the biggest problems that Mahatma Gandhi had to consider was that of language. In India, there were literally hundreds of different languages and dialects spoken, by dozens of distinct ethnic groups. Hindi speakers wanted Hindi for the national language, Urdu speakers wanted it to be Urdu and speakers of other languages, while conceding that their local tongues didn't lay claim to as many speakers as Hindi or Urdu, hoped that each region of India would be able to choose its own official language. Each option offered risks which bordered on unacceptable. If Ghandi chose Hindi or Urdu then he risked creating a two tier society (even while working to rid India of the ancient but oppressive caste system) in which native speakers would have an advantage in business, schools and other competitive fields, and as such might naturally come to assume that they were somehow naturally advantaged while speakers of other languages might become similarly resentful. If he allowed each region to select its own language then he risked creating deep regional divisions that might eventually lead to the rise of nationalism among ethnic minorities and the further division of the country (Gandhi's worst nightmare had already occurred, when the British had partitioned the country into a predominantly hindu India and a predominantly muslim Pakistan.)

Gandhi made his decision. And when he did it confounded everyone and angered many. Gandhi decided that the official language of India would be English, the hated tongue of the colonial masters. Gandhi however saw the logic in this decision. First, it did not give anyone an innate advantage, as the colonial language was equally detested everywhere. Second, by decreeing that governmental communications would be published in English and that school children would study it, he guaranteed the basic solvency of India because it meant that an Indian from anywhere in the country could sit and talk to an Indian from anywhere else in the country. Third, he believed that by educating students in English, India would develop faster and develop stronger business ties with the English speaking world (though I doubt if he foresaw the use of call centers in his country by American credit card companies.)

History has shown it to have been a wise decision however. And I do see the logic and agree with it that in the United States it is good to have everyone learn to speak English so that we can all communicate with each other.

However, we have gone too far in the direction of 'English only,' and to the point where it is becoming harmful not only to our citizenry but to our economic standing in the world. Our education model, which is essentially hased on nineteenth and early twentieth century ideas about how to study linguistics, assumes that children should not learn a foreign language until they are old enough to conjugate a verb. Generally this is in high school. In fact, some years ago I tried to enroll my then nine-year old daughters to audit a Spanish class at the local community college (along with myself, we were all going to audit the class together.) The official response however was that they could not enroll because they had to be fourteen. However, this is a very wrong-headed approach to the problem. Children learn languages best at a young age. Recent research has even showed that during puberty the brains of children change, and it appears that one of the changes is that the brain is less adept and learning new language skills. So the crux of the argument is this-- it's OK if a student learns bad grammar in another language. Kids learn bad grammar in English, and we are able to work on fixing the double negatives, the slang and the poor writing skills in junior high and high school. But the basic knowlege of the English language is there by then. So there is precedent for the idea that learning a language early doesn't preclude the study of word structure and other more advanced language skills later.

That doesn't mean of course that people can't learn one or more second languages later on in life, but it is and will always be that-- a 'second' language. Your basic thought processes will always be in your first language, so that you will always be at least at a slight disadvantage when speaking to someone who grew up speaking the language that you studied all those long hours out of books and audiocassettes to try and perfect. You may remember how to say something, but they don't have to remember. It's a part of their thought process and comes out naturally.

The truth is, that in today's world knowing more than one language is important. In Europe it's always been that way, as European countries are about the size of U.S. states on average and it is necessary to know more than one language if one wants to travel anywhere. Even in America, let's just say that if you apply for a job in Los Angeles and know one language and the other applicant is bilingual then guess who gets the job? Businesses are there to make money, and they won't hire someone who can't communicate with some of their potential customers when someone else applies who can. But the real problem is when it comes to trade. In an increasingly globalized world, international trade is itself an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars per year. And the people who manage and drive that industry are those who can communicate with the people on both ends of the line. In general, they is not Americans. For example, nearly all of the hundreds of billions of dollars in trade between the U.S. and China is directed and managed by Chinese middlemen. That's because millions of Chinese kids are taught at a young age to speak English as well as Chinese, while very few Americans are fluent in Mandarin. So when it comes time to arrange a deal then the power broker that someone calls is most probably Chinese.

In contrast, I'd like to talk about my cousin's daughter (I'll call her Alice). My cousin is on my father's side, and our family is American all the way back to the Mayflower (I had an ancestor who outfitted the Mayflower and rented it to the pilgrims, and he himself came over ten years later, in 1630.) She is married to a man from central America. So Alice grew up speaking both English and Spanish. She can easily switch back and forth between the two languages and carry on a conversation in either one without having to stop and think about how to say something. She is also an excellent student.

Alice is an prime example of what we could have-- IF we changed 'English only' to 'English and' then we would with one shot both guarantee that we could all speak to each other AND give people the language skills that they will need, and that we collectively need for them to have in an increasingly interconnected and global world. We could also do away with some of the sillier controversies we have in schools today. If we required all kids to learn in elementary school two languages, one of which would be English and the other of which would be something else with the goal that by the end of sixth grade all kids would be fluent in at least two languages, then all kids would also be on an equal footing. Those whose native language was not English would have to learn English. The rest would know English but would have to learn something else (which would be a matter of choice-- and yes, I'd include sign language as a valid choice.)

But it's time we quit debating with ourselves about teaching and learning languages and instead realized that we must move forward on it. In a world of global business, our economic future depends on it. If we do not, and assume that the status quo is good enough then we will languish on the vine as others pass us up. And therein is a thought for the title of this essay.

1 comment:

wstachour said...

I run into these "English ONLY" people all the time at work, and I just don't figure where they get any foothold for their vehemence. It's an argument that seems only to come from indigenous white guys (many of whom are monolingual), people who have the good fortune to have been born into the language they demand be taken on by others.

I think it's fundamentally an anti-immigration thing, since the topics are always hand-in-glove. But even THAT I don't understand: we're a nation of immigrants! Those who come here and become productive citizens (which often means learning the predominant language) will naturally progress further than those who just want government benefits. These things take care of themselves.

And if we eventually become a predominantly Spanish-speaking country, so what? As you say, good business will take care of much of this, I think.