But as much as this has been an exploration of the history of language in the United States, it has also turned out to be an examination of prejudice and privilege…. [American history] is genocide and slavery and discrimination
— Elizabeth Little, Trip of the Tongue (p. 252).
The history of language follows the ebbs and flows of one form of communication to another. It seems that human beings, born in the right circumstances, can switch from one language to another without much effort. One group spoke Hebrew, then Babylonian, then Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and Arabic. Generation after generation, language blends into language.
Languages don’t just ebb and flow like tides of the ocean. They fight, kill, dominate, and oppress, like warring chimpanzees. Hebrew speakers sent the Canaanites to the hills, before being conquered by Babylonians, and then the Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Arabs. Each power came and imposed a language of privilege onto the next group. No language disappeared without a fight.
Power eliminates languages; languages don’t simply disappear. When I spoke this weekend with an Ojibwa man, he regretted that he didn’t speak Ojibwa more than a few words. I explained it wasn’t his fault. His mother didn’t speak the language either, because her parents were forced by the US government to forget it. While the Ojibwa language is not yet dead, the effects of the violence is still being felt three generations later.
When you pick a language to learn, you make a choice about what language you will privilege. You may pick a privileged language, Portuguese in Brazil, Mandarin in China, Hindi in India, or English in Nigeria. You recognize and bow to the power that steamrolled Terena, Gelao, Lambadi, and Dogon. You choose to pick a language that is more “useful” to you.
What do we mean when we say we want to study a language that is “useful”? We can receive more privilege by it. We can do business to make money, or we can speak to people with influence, or speak to the greatest number of people. That way we don’t have to work as hard to connect with the most powerful of their society, or speak to more people that we can connect with.
Another way of putting it is to say that we want to learn a language that is “more accessible,” that is, one where we don’t have to work hard to find books, websites, and professional teachers for learning.
Maybe we’ll have the opportunity to travel to an exotic location for a vacation where we can speak and/or learn the language. We will find ways to “access” the language if it works well for us. That small percentage of the world’s population who can take a plane on vacation can consider this way of learning languages.
Modern language learners in the West do so to gain economic advantage, with the least hassle or with the possibility of exotic travel. All this language-learning revolves around and perpetuates privilege.
We have a decision to make when we choose a language to learn. If we want to go to Spain, we immediately think to learn Spanish. The largest number of resources exist in this country, and we can speak to the largest number of people. It’s the most privileged language, and can perpetuate our own privilege. But we could also learn Basque, which would be harder and less “useful.” Better yet, we could learn Moroccan Arabic or Wolof—even less “useful.”
Even less exotic would be to learn the language of the marginalized people near us. Few people think of this. Someone who lauds the beautiful exotic culture of India might show less interest in learning the Bengali of the neighborhood next to his. When Olly Richards gave reasons for learning Thai, he didn’t mention that you might have Thai neighbors or coworkers who would appreciate speaking in their own language.
Learn to think of what would convenience another, what would convey privilege to someone else. We can learn a language and gain nothing from learning it, instead, letting another person gain. The food does not have to be outstanding, the culture does not have to captivate us. The people don’t have to charm us. People are being steamrolled by a culture not their own, one that offers privilege to speakers of another language.