“The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules. It is a philosophy, and a very correct one. History has proved again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.” —Jean-Luc Picard
For the Star Trek universe, this directive refers to technology. Why do so many agree with it? Because we see that a huge technology differential hurts the civilization who possesses less technology.
“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.” —Prof. Steven Hawking
Not based on science-fiction but on history, Dr. Hawking believes that the differential between us and aliens who might contact us would likely destroy us.
Why are people concerned about this difference in technology? Because technology is power, and a huge power differential will destroy the weak.
Nevertheless, the Enterprise continued to boldly go where no man had gone before. Dr. Hawking, in contrast, suggests we avoid aliens. The two differ because the United Federation of Planets assumed that it was more powerful than other civilizations, while Dr. Hawking fears that aliens could clobber us—even by accident.
Power differences can result in unintended consequences. Does loving language threaten others or mediate that threat?
Colonialism evokes violence and shame
I understand how white people bristle when they hear me cause language-learners “colonists.” Rachel commented sincerely and honestly about colonialism in her own family. On the one hand, her family is Celtic, so they dealt with colonialism by the English. On the other hand, her own relatives served in the British Colonial Army in India and Malaysia.
Rachel herself is learning minority languages in her community. She’s striving to recapture the language of her ancestors, Scottish Gaelic. She also trots out the occasional German and Italian when she comes into contact with immigrants from those countries. She thinks all the time about immigrants, and her own family’s roots half a world away.
Language exchanges are usually good
Ladyofthecakes commented on another recent post. She wrote, “In general the exchange between two people of different cultures for the purpose of language learning is mutually rewarding, even if their resources are not equal.”
Occasionally, though, it can turn bad when one person uses another person solely to practice a language, which she calls “language rape”. So while it’s good, we still see a little ambivalence.
Learning the language of the spouse
Finally, Colin at Lusosite, who wrote a thoughtful post in response to my earlier post, commented, “If you happen to be married to someone from Thailand then that would be a good reason right there [for learning Thai]. That’s my reason for learning Portuguese and I live in London.”
What we can learn
- We might be colonists or the children of colonists, but we can still reach out to the less powerful in our community. We are still redeemable.
- Learning languages with natives in their country can be mutually enjoyable and beneficial.
- Learning the language of a spouse brings its own benefits.
Nevertheless, the threat implied by the need for a Prime Directive looms over all of this. Constantly examining our own ability to harm others in our quest to learn languages will help mitigate any potential harm we might cause. Looking for the good of the other, not just of ourself, must play an important part, as well.
Enjoyment, even mutual enjoyment, can bring unintended, potentially harmful consequences. I talked about economic harm here, for example. I surely caused some unintended harm when I was in Ukraine and Morocco because of the power differential by disrupting families and their relationships with their neighbors. People looked at me as one who was loaded with dollars, and that affected things a lot.
Good came of it, nevertheless. I gained from it and I understand a lot more about the world. Just like the Enterprise explored and moved on to the next world, though, I moved on.
But this is the incorrect measure.
The real gain was to learn about my own power and to come to terms with it; language-love taught me how to mediate the destruction my power can cause.
My power comes with my birthright as an upper middle-class, white, American male. I do not feel “white guilt” about it, that is I don’t feel bad that I have it and others don’t. I feel that I have a duty to use the power that I have for the sake of others.
When we join a community, like by marrying someone, our destinies are joined. That way joy offered to one is joy offered to ourselves, and harm to another harms us, as well. By binding myself to a community, I can exercise my duty and connect with others. I can mitigate the harm by ensuring that I feel some of the pain through my community.
By learning about my power and weakness, I became a better member of my own society.
What has language learning taught you about who you are?
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