Justice requires learning languages

By denying languages their value are you denying justice?
By denying languages their value are you denying justice?

Humans attach value judgments to natural differences among people.  For example, one person has a different skin color than another.  This is a genetic difference with no inherent value.  The human being will, nevertheless, attach a value to one skin color or another.  This tendency is inimical to justice.  Justice requires equality, not putting one person above another.  If we desire to be just, we have to struggle against our inclination to consign humans to one category of value or another.

Language divides groups of people, because, as expected, humans attach various values to different languages.  For example, one is more worthy of study than another, or one represents a better civilization than another.  If I want to communicate with someone who speaks a language different from mine, at least one of us must learn another language.  In the US, we assume that the other will learn English; why should we bother learning a thousand other languages when most of the world already sees the value of learning English? We have to ask another question, however, if we desire to be just: Why should everyone learn English and not the other way around?  Is English more valuable?  Languages are often connected to their economic and cultural value, and so English is very “valuable.”  By the same token, Somali or Hmong or Kunama or Menominee are not valuable.  Injustice is embedded in how humans interpret the interaction among languages.

You cannot treat others with justice if you don’t see the value in their language, that is, you value your language above theirs.  This attitude is exemplified in the assumption, “Let us speak my language.”  My language is worthy to be studied by you; your language is not worthy to be studied by me.  If you hold this assumption, you may attempt to act justly, but you cannot succeed.  Unless we are willing to speak the language of the other, we cannot treat him or her justly.  We cannot be complacent with our language; we have to attempt to learn the other’s language.  We might stumble in learning the language, we might fail at anything beyond, “Hello,” but we have to measure ourselves by our success at connecting with and loving the other.

I strongly believe that loving someone requires loving his or her language.  In this blog I talked about how businesses do not value languages enough, how people treat others badly because they don’t understand them, how Americans do not bother to learn the languages of their communities.  On the positive side, I wrote on how I and others connect with others by learning their language, how LDS missionaries emphasize teaching in the student’s language, how you can bring happiness to others by speaking in their language even a little, how language offers us an opportunity to move outside ourselves.  Learning a language allows one to connect deeply with another; refusing to do so perpetuates distance. Love requires closeness and connection.

I recently found an interview of the social entrepreneur and one of my favorite language bloggers, Aaron Myers at the Everyday Language Learner blog. Susanna Zaraysky interviewed Aaron Myers about his I-586 project to translate language-learning references into many languages.  Aaron offers free ESL materials in other languages.  Because the English language can propel people in other countries into better jobs, access to English learning can help people economically.  Aaron sees the ability to learn English as a justice issue, so he is making materials available to people in their language who couldn’t normally afford them.

I agree that accessibility to language education is a matter of justice; furthermore, I believe that rejecting language education is also a matter of justice.  Denying language education to middle-class American children denies them to learn the value of all languages and, by extension, all people.  Already, children are taught the value of all races, all ability levels, all economic levels.  Unlike learning languages, they do not have to act on those lessons.  If they are offered rich language offerings, they could work towards more justice and love towards their fellows.  Taking actions of justice and connection would open their hearts even more.

I’m with Aaron that more people need the opportunity to learn languages.  Learning a language does not only offer economic advancement, but also tools for love and respect.  Justice requires eliminating the value of one language over another so that as humans we can love and connect with speakers of all languages.

How do you see the relationship between language and justice?  Is it ok to view one language as more valuable than another?  Should the practical–speaking the most accessible language–trump the ideal–learning the language of the less economically advantaged?

Photo credit: Frederic Poirot / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

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One thought on “Justice requires learning languages

  1. Pingback: Developing language education at my job | Loving Language

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