IN DEFENSE OF BABEL

Montreal_stopsign


IN DEFENSE OF BABEL

by Okla Elliott

During Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, he once discussed immigration by saying that we ought to be less worried about immigrants learning English and more worried about whether our children are learning Spanish. He must have known he’d wandered into unsafe territory, because he immediately began enumerating the business advantages your children would have if they were bilingual. (It is always safe in American discourse to return to how something might make money.) Obama was attacked by Democrats and Republicans alike for daring to utter the unthinkable—that Americans need to be learning foreign languages.

As I write this, I am in Montréal, a city that has achieved nearly seamless bilingualism. Depending on the neighborhood, most signs, menus, etc are written in both French and English, and you can order at most places of business in either language. I don’t mean to suggest there aren’t tensions between those who consider their mother tongue French and those who consider it English. There are. Famously so. And one of my instructors, Jessy, at the language institute where I’m studying admitted to being reluctant to read Canadian literature in English (though she also happens to be nearly fluent in English, which indicates her resistance to the language isn’t total, and she seemed embarrassed to admit to reading only francophone literature).  And Jessy isn’t alone in her ambivalence. There’s a referendum every few years for Québec to secede from the rest of Canada, but it is always defeated, and largely because of the huge population in Montréal which always votes en masse to remain part of the larger country.

But there’s the brighter, almost ideal side. You walk up Rue St Laurent, lined with hipster bars and nice restaurants, and you’ll hear the people at one table speaking in French while those at the adjacent table speak English. My favorite scene, which I’ve seen play out several times in my few weeks here, is when a group of people is speaking one language, then someone shows up who is less proficient in that language (usually an English speaker, sadly), and the group simply shifts to the new person’s language of comfort.  It’s a seamless transition, and no one is put out by it.  For lack of a better word, I always think how civilized this is.

Those people in the US who are worried that English will disappear are either willfully ignorant or just insane.  English enjoys not only the 4th largest native speaker population on the planet but is also by far the most common 2nd language learned.  I’m sorry, but every time I hear someone bemoan the rise of Spanish as a second language in the US, I hear laziness or mindless nationalism.  There is absolutely no downside to learning another language, while there are numerous upsides.

But the paranoiac fear isn’t abating. Nowhere is this made more visible than on the US-Mexico border with the fervor for fence-building and of volunteers toting shotguns, excessive in their eagerness to “defend our borders” (from what, I always wonder, hard workers with a drive for self-improvement?).  William T Vollmann’s new book, Imperial, which will be released next month, is a 1,300-page nonfiction exploration of Imperial County, California, where many immigrants who have died in the journey across the border are buried.  There’s an excellent New York Times article about Vollmann and his new book here.

But instead of seeing the ugliness nationalism can cause and instead of embracing the positive aspects of bi- and multilingualism, many Americans are doing just the opposite.  Arizona, Idaho, and Iowa have all recently passed English-only laws, and Oklahoma is poised to vote on an English-only referendum on the 2010 ballot, one which is expected to pass by a large margin.

But what are the advantages of multilingualism?, one might ask.  Aside from Obama’s aforementioned job opportunities, which certainly exist, there are the joys other languages bring.  There is nothing like being in a foreign country and speaking the language.  The experience is so much richer, I have basically foregone visiting countries whose languages in which I don’t at least have some proficiency.  Language is so often the vehicle for culture, and there is simply no way to appreciate another culture without understanding its language.

But there are more immediate ones as well. The CIA has recently been running ads in an attempt to recruit Americans with foreign language skills.  Apparently less than 20% of the CIA staff has proficiency in a foreign language.  Pause for a moment and take that in.  Less than 20% of our international intelligence gathering organ speaks a foreign language.  Mama Elliott didn’t raise no geniuses, but I see how this might be a problem.  Now, I tend to think that most of what the CIA does adds to the misery in the world, so its being hindered in any way might be good in the long run, but there is an old Polish saying: “Know the languages of your friends well, but know the languages of your enemies better.”  Here, even the security-crazed people of this country have to admit that learning Arabic, Farsi, Korean, etc might prove useful.

But I’m less interested in talk of enemies, and I would like to rephrase that Polish saying to: “Learn the languages of your enemies in order to make them your friends.”  I remember when I was an undergrad and preparing for my first academic study abroad to Germany, I was required to attend several information sessions.  At one of them, the goals of the program were laid out, and one of them was world peace.  I thought, “Huh?  How can my improving my understanding of the dative case in German alter international relations?”  The counselor explained that people are less likely to support a war against a country if they’ve lived there or speak the language, and that the kinds of cultural misunderstandings that can lead to less than diplomatic solutions can be obviated if we have enough people here who know firsthand how to navigate those cultural waters.

The advantages, both large and small, are legion.

There are many jobs in legal, technological, governmental, and medical fields that require knowledge of foreign languages.  Studies show that studying a foreign language can reduce the chances of dementia in old age, can improve children’s comprehension of their native language, and even increase a person’s IQ.  There are the interpersonal benefits.  I can’t help but notice the tens of millions of Spanish speakers in world and can’t help but be happy that I have the means to communicate with them. Likewise with French; when I look at a linguistic map of Africa, my heart fairly flutters with possibility.  There are advantages for the activist-minded, such as Habitat for Humanity, Peace Corps, Doctors without Borders, etc.

And on, and on . . .

If being in Montréal has taught me anything, it’s that bi- and multilingualism can work and can have a hugely positive effect on a culture and business community.  It’s not a perfect model, but those tend not to exist in the real world.  It is, however, a hopeful example of what certain US cities could become or already are becoming, if only we embrace it fully and encourage it with the proper institutions and attitude.


Further Reading:

The Undividing Line Between Literary and Political by Okla Elliott, 7/15/09

About Okla Elliott

I am currently an assistant professor at Misericordia University in northeast Pennsylvania. I hold a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Illinois, an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University, and a legal studies certificate from Purdue University. My work has appeared in Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review, The Hill, Huffington Post, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, and Subtropics, as well as being listed as a "notable essay" in Best American Essays 2015. My books include From the Crooked Timber (short fiction), The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry), The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a coauthored novel), Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker (translation), and Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide (nonfiction).
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8 Responses to IN DEFENSE OF BABEL

  1. Yahya T. Ali says:

    “Here, even the security-crazed people of this country have to admit that learning Arabic, Farsi, Korean, etc might prove useful.

    But I’m less interested in talk of enemies, and I would like to rephrase that Polish saying to: “Learn the languages of your enemies in order to make them your friends.” ”

    Well said my friend. Many Arabic and Farsi students are learning the language to fill the much-needed lack of Arabic/Farsi translators in the army, the CIA and FBI. The problem is, many of the teachers of these languages working with these agencies are the likes of Daniel Pipes and Bernard Lewis and others who do “other” the speakers of these languages and have played a major role in demonizing and blurring the entire culture as one mad Arab.

    Of course, the Polish saying is not a unique one. Arabs have such a saying as well, and has been vital in university curricula which teach Hebrew as the language of the enemy. How could one learn such a language when filled with hatred and has already created that culture as one of an enemy?
    My father (who speaks over 5 languages) asked a Lebanese man, who’s been a prisoner in Israeli prisons for 12 years about why he cannot speak Hebrew. He simply said “I hated them so much”.

    I have always seen Nationalism to be feeble and can only be adhered to by the feeble-minded. Nationalism is just a polite word for racism, xenophobia and exclusionist policies. It is not unique to the US of course. Many nations around the world have suppressed minorities and their cultures in favor of a melting-pot National identity. It happened in North African Arab countries, where the language and culture of Berber have been suppressed in favor of an Arab identity. In Kuwait and the Arabian peninsula as well.. right now I am lazily outlining my project of documenting the soon-to-be-extinct Farsi dialects and culture in Kuwait.

    The claim that Americans speak English, is so ironic. It is no longer “English” in the sense it is of England; and if it is American, then many languages have influenced “American” as much as English. Does English really exist anymore? Is it really English they speak? I’m not a linguist, but I can safely assume that within a 100 years, people will be learning either (British) English, or American. The separation between the two has already been going on for so many decades. A few generations to come, they will regard the two as totally different languages.

    I think what I’m trying to say is, how could such reductionist, exclusionist and melting-pot notions still exist in a post-modern world where the lines are blurred between languages, religions and cultures.

  2. oklaelliott says:

    Yahya, please keep me informed about your project. That sounds both wonderfully interesting and tragically sad — and therefore something worth preserving in terms of cultural knowledge.

    The story of the Lebanese man you mention reminds me of the differing scenario among concentration camp survivors after WWII who had been forced to learn German but who, for obvious reasons, refused to ever speak it again afterward. It is horrible to think that there was whole language floating around in someone’s head which due to the horrors (again, of nationalism) he would/could never access.

  3. MS says:

    Good post. I, too, like your rephrasing the Polish saying to: “Learn the languages of your enemies in order to make them your friends.”

    Enjoy the rest of your time in Montreal.

  4. Bernard Parsons says:

    ” Now, I tend to think that most of what the CIA does adds to the misery in the world, so its being hindered in any way might be good in the long run, but there is an old Polish saying: “Know the languages of your friends well, but know the languages of your enemies better.” Here, even the security-crazed people of this country have to admit that learning Arabic, Farsi, Korean, etc might prove useful.”

    “Many Arabic and Farsi students are learning the language to fill the much-needed lack of Arabic/Farsi translators in the army, the CIA and FBI. The problem is, many of the teachers of these languages working with these agencies are the likes of Daniel Pipes and Bernard Lewis and others who do “other” the speakers of these languages and have played a major role in demonizing and blurring the entire culture as one mad Arab.”

    Sounds about right. Having understanding and compassion for countries whose decisions need to be co-opted via espionage would be a hindrance to the CIA. They’re definitely not getting any immigrants from those countries working for them, so they have to count on a rare type of person 1) intelligent enough to pick up a language with an entirely different alphabet, grammar, and potentially phonetics, 2) willing to learn that language, culture, and potentially disrupt their entire system. It’s a good thing they have a lot of experience in brainwashing/indoctrination, or they might do something, uh, not evil, for once.

    In regards to Okla:

    I really hope that we see foreign languages brought into K-12 US public schools, the earlier the better, since the critical period of acquisition (or at least its meaning) is clear to most. The economic benefits for bi/multi-lingual speakers should be obvious too, for resumes, networking, getting into new markets. Nationalism and xenophobia are part of the problem, but I wonder, with all the advantages, what is our government’s inexplicable will to keep our education behind the curve.

  5. nash says:

    Why does Canada recognize English and French as official languages of the country? (along with a few aboriginal languages that less than 1% of the population speaks) That seems kind of close-minded to me, based on the logic followed in this blog. Why would they (or any country) draw an official line? If Spanish creeps its way up there in large numbers, they can fall back on the laws of the land and say that English and French are the two choices, and to deal with it.

    • Okla Elliott says:

      It would be impractical to post stop signs in 27 languages. This is why you have to have a certain number of official languages, since various legal documents will be printed (sometimes at great expense) in the official languages. I advocate a very open policy about foreign languages, obviously, but it would be impractical to give every language equal status in every country. I mean, why should the US be printing drivers’ license pamphlets in Swedish? That seems like a waste, yet doing so in English, Spanish, and maybe even Chinese at this point makes tons of sense.

  6. Alec Mose says:

    excellent article, really enjoyed reading it. will be back to read future posts.

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