Tuesday, December 12, 2006

21st Century Schooling: Language

One of the bits in the Time article stated that American children should get more foreign language. As much as I don't really want to say it, and as arrogant as it sounds: in strict terms of relevance, anyone who speaks English has no practical need to learn another language. English is the de facto (Latin anyone) language of the world in terms of economy, science, and politics. This is, largely, because of the dominant role of the United States in all of those fields, but, at this point, even if our role is diminished, the role of English will not be. (grammar on the other hand...) This does not mean, however, that I disagree with the sentiment.

I think that learning and speaking another language is a lot of fun. I enjoy doing it (and not because it annoys certain others who do not understand me). I frequently translate things in my head and play out imaginary conversations. I like singing songs in other languages as well...as a kid I loved Christmas-time masses because we would sometimes sing "Adeste Fideles" (Latin version of "Oh Come All Ye Faithful"). Aside from the fun factor, though, which may not appeal to everyone, foreign language is one of the few areas of education in which Americans get a real look at a different culture. American culture is unique, but it has permeated throughout the world such that it is often ambiguous to the point that (foreigners) may accuse us of not having one (any). That is untrue and unfair--yes, McDonald's is part of it, but so too is our constitutional democracy and our deep seeded belief in certain, "inalienable" rights. Perhaps because of the notion of the US as a "melting pot" or combination of many cultures, we often overlook cultural aspects of other societies (Iraq and Iran, anyone?); we assume that if something works here it will work anywhere (I have heard that Euro-Disney is doing better). Language classes are among the few places where we may see how that is not true.

Various aspects of culture were involved in all language classes I took. Art, history and literature all got involved; video showing traditional dance and classes where we would prepare and eat relevant food. Spanish class also opened the door for me to spend a summer in Paraguay, in a small village with no paved roads. There could be more or less in various language classes, but seldom do those classes devolve into rote memorization of vocabulary words and verb conjugations, though those definitely play a substantial role. The understanding of the culture that develops is not one that is expressly taught, but by showing the culture and, in a sense, becoming part of it for a few hours a week, an empathy will develop on its own.

I'll admit, there is something to be said about how poorly we educate our children in terms of the world, but even doing more in terms of world history and modern civilizations will not provide the near immersion aspect that learning a language does. Even if the language itself is poorly retained, the cultural empathy will remain. I often wonder if more people in this country spoke Spanish, would there still be so much hatred toward Hispanic immigrants? Even Dubbya, who seems to have little in the way of empathy toward his fellow human, doesn't hate the brown man so...he also speaks some Spanish...poorly (must. not. sound. like. I. like. that. man.).

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