Love language to think differently

You can learn something here you can't learn at Yale: How to think differently.
You can learn something here you can’t learn at Yale: How to think differently.

This week I saw such a contrast, between passionate language students and resisters to language education. The two sides came from unlikely places.

The serious study of language reveals the commitment to the deep knowledge of a culture. That’s why I often talk about “language love,” because love is the deep commitment to another person or persons. One gives up part of one’s self to become a better self in the service of the beloved. Language-love, because of its deep connections, makes one a better person.

In Western culture, though, language education relates to a classroom, not love, not connection. My kids learn Spanish in their Spanish class, as well as “culture,” which includes facts about clothing in Central America and Puerto Ricans in New York.

Language-love, though, comes from dedication to the language. You cannot help but learn about the culture—on a deep level—by talking with the native speakers of the language. Once you love, you learn to see differently.

In the US, we see that language-love and education do not necessarily go with each other. This week I read about great language-love in poor, rural New York State, and language-haters in the hallowed halls of the Ivy League.

A recent article on Slate defended foreign language education against a common anti-language sentiment among students at US universities.

The author offered multiple references to similar articles in similar school periodicals, including an Op-Ed from a Yale freshman who demanded that his university scrap their three-term language requirement because it was a poor use of limited, very expensive time at this Ivy League university.

In that Yale article, the author writes,

The conventional wisdom, stated on the Center for Language Study’s website, is that knowledge of a foreign language has become “increasingly important” in our increasingly globalized world. That sounds nice — like Yale values diversity — but is it actually true? Is knowledge of Zulu or Dutch — two languages one can study to fulfill the language requirement — really “increasingly important” to succeed in the world?

I agree with insisting on learning a language in university (as well as in high school—and, for that matter, in middle and elementary school), but I believe that the motivation of the “globalized world” may be the wrong reason.

This “globalized world” means that I encounter more of the world in my daily life. I agree with this. In my IT job at a global company, I regularly meet with people from China, Russia, Germany, and the Philippines. My high school and college German and Russian come very much in handy.

It probably would not have been wise for me to study Tagalog in college, though, as this meeting with the Philippines was very accidental. While a lot of US IT work is being outsourced to the Philippines a) it was not being outsourced there when I was in college, and b) I never intended to work in IT.

I realized how truly academic this discussion is when I read about the Akwesasne Freedom School in upstate New York (and in the original article here). Thirty-five years ago, a part of the Mohawk tribe decided to create a school to counteract the effects of the boarding schools in previous generations.

This school teaches immersion Mohawk to students aged 3 through 17. It employees fluent speakers of the language to teach all of the subjects, and produces more kids able to speak the language fluently.

While students at rich, prestigious universities complain about how studying a language wastes their time and how they cannot remember or use their language, Mohawks in Upstate New York find deep value in learning a language.

Iakonikonhriiosta, an early teacher at the Akwesasne Freedom School, explains the difference:

We’re not just teaching you to be a Mohawk who thinks like the outside system, but thinks in Mohawk.

If you are at Yale, you are learning to think like the inside system. You need to learn how to think like the outside system, and you do so through language.

We do not learn languages so that we can engage in our “globalized world.” We learn them so that we can participate more in our local community. If you learn Mohawk—or Zulu or Dutch—you will learn to think like another person. As you think like that other person, you will expand the way that your mind works by different points of view, and the way your heart works by empathizing with more people.

Our world requires us to think in different modes.

The Yalie who penned the op-ed wants to remain thinking in the mode he came into college with. He assumed what was “useful” and what he would need, but by studying a language would challenge his views on what was and was not important. It would connect him with communities that he believed that were perhaps not “increasingly important.”

Do you agree that we need to be able to think in different modes? Are language the way to get there?

Photo credit from North Country Public Radio.

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