Learning another language

Catherine Porter’s 2009 presidential address at the Modern Language Association convention was called “English is Not Enough.” It was a response to the growing number of cuts to language and literature departments at universities and colleges and to the spread of “English only” policies and sentiments throughout the U.S. (and anglophone Canada). Since then, the MLA, National Council of Teachers of English (pdf), American Sociological Association, History of Science Society, and several other major organizations have all released statements stressing the importance of studying other languages.

Here in Georgia, where some elementary schools wisely recommend introducing Mandarin to increase students’ options in the global workforce, some educators deny the same significance to Spanish. One county superintendent declared that Spanish belongs to the country’s “past,” not its future. It’s up to those of us with the resources to do so to correct these false, tacitly racist assumptions.

Those of us who specialize in English–or in one or more world/historical Englishes–know that globalization makes learning other languages more, not less, important. Linguists and anthropologists have long known this, and literary scholars are finally catching up. New histories of American literature include chapters on Chinese and Yiddish-language novels from the early 20th century. Our vocabularies and traditions have been artificially separated from those of Spanish (especially Mexico and the Caribbean), French, and Latin; from German, Anglo-Saxon and Greek; from dozens of indigenous North American languages; from Hindi, which is genetically closer to English than many European languages. “Standard” English is constantly being reshaped from the peripheries. American Sign Language, C++, and lolspeak are all recent, more or less intentional developments, but they have expanded our conceptions of what language is and how it works.

Language programs under attack at Emory: Farsi or Persian (world population nearly 24 million), French (nearly 68 million), Hindi (181.7 million), Russian (143.5 million), Spanish (328.5 million).

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