Martin Luther King, arrogance, and language

Learning languages combats arrogance
Learning languages combats arrogance

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, “Beyond Vietnam”

On this blog I often speak about the reasons for learning languages, and I’ve mentioned before social justice as a motivation. Dr. King asserted in the above quote that arrogance can take the form of constantly teaching and not wanting to learn–and this is “not just.” As soon as we assume that our knowledge is superior to others, we betray a lack of justice. American attitudes, even among those who seek to help others, can betray some of this arrogance, even if subconscious. The activity of learning languages can help counteract American cultural arrogance and encourage justice.

Helping others?

King forces an uneasy comparison because he equates this arrogance to that of those who extract the riches of the developing world and those who align themselves with unjust rulers in other countries. Arrogance lies at the basis of all of them. Taking advantage of others, condoning injustice, and unwillingness to learn from others imply that my needs are most important, relationships offer convenience, and my knowledge suffices.

This arrogance can take subtle forms.  When I was in high school, one of my main interests was to “help people.” I wanted to use what I had to help people do things differently, to allow them to improve their lives. It took many years to see the arrogance in that desire. I needed to learn to do things differently; I needed others to help my improve my life.

How did I learn? I went overseas, learned languages, and lived a different life from the inside-out. I had to force myself into a new paradigm, and I came out with clearer insight into a life well-lived. My friends in other countries taught me about a better way to live.

I learned compassion as a result, which melted my arrogance. My friends overseas–many of them vulnerable because of economic reasons–gave me a gift I can never repay. Out of gratitude to them, I now believe in giving voice to those who are hurting or being taken for granted. After living as a foreigner, I believe in fighting so that the voice of outsiders can be heard and we as a society can learn from them. They challenge what we perceive as our needs, how we form our relationships, and how limited our knowledge is.

Arrogance manifest

Even when we try to help, we can fall into the trap of arrogance. We are pleased with ourselves for providing English education to our immigrants–but is this generosity overshadowed by arrogance? Our society places many incentives for teaching English over teaching other languages. Many more ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers are employed compared to the number of teachers of other languages. According to Kenneth Beare, currently 27% of schools with open ESL positions found them impossible or very difficult to fill. Some states offer significant signing bonuses for ESL teachers.

At the same time, elementary and middle schools are reducing the number of classes for other languages.  We can see that Americans put more public time and money into teaching our language than learning others’. I’m grateful for all the great, dedicated ESL teachers out there.  I just want to see students making as much of a demand for teachers of other languages.  Incentives in US education testify to arrogance.

We need to create a greater demand for language teachers, classes, and other methods. This dignifies the knowledge possessed by those who speak other languages, and treats them with more dignity. Approaching them with a need and desire to learn brings more justice into our thinking.

Learning a language for the revolution

Learning languages can inaugurate this revolution of values in us. When you learn another language, you combat your own arrogance. You fight against the idea that with your language you know all you need to know. Many of us understand this point, but only passively. We can still go the next step and actively acknowledge our need to expand our ability to hear other voices and learn the language of those voices.

All the readers of this blog understand English, and the majority of you are native speakers. We have a moral imperative to learn another language and to challenge our arrogance. To open ourselves to learning, we can become children again in our thinking–and nothing makes you feel more like a little kid than learning a foreign language. Then you will be better able to identify with the humble and the outcast rather than with those who have nothing to learn.

Photo credit: B.S. Wise / Foter.com / CC BY

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10 thoughts on “Martin Luther King, arrogance, and language

  1. Very well said! Humility that comes from truly living somewhere else is such a gift. To be able to look back at early experiences and have enough insight to cringe at the gaffs, be blessed by the tolerance received and guided generous folks who helped open eyes by sharing insights that revealed another world, another perspective another way of living. Language is a vehicle to a different way of thinking – a unilingual existence is too limiting in today’s interconnected world. Great post!

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    1. Thank you for your insight. I agree that humility is that gift.

      I was wondering, how have you benefited from the humility you’ve learned from the “generous folks” you’ve had the good people you’ve met? Do you have any concrete examples?

      Does anyone else have concrete examples, dear readers?

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    1. Thank you! It’s as if their native language is “cute”, while being an obstacle to real English mastery. A pity! The native language of all these multilingual people is a gold mine we have yet to value.

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      1. I agree! And I want to communicate with more people, so I want to learn more languages.

        Regarding your second point, it depends on how you define language. As defined in linguistics, “language” is productive and infinitely recursive.

        “Productive” means that one can create new sentences that you have never heard before. Birds, for example, can’t “make up” a new song, so that would not be considered language in the technical sense.

        “Recursive” means that the rules can keep playing out on themselves. For example, you can say, “I know that Mary knows that Hassan knows that…”, for ever. No animal communication can do that.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Languages won’t make you more money, so why do it? – Loving Language

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