"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Should There Be an ‘Other’ Language? Or Is There More Power to be Found in the Multilingual?

With thanks to Lisa and her post, my mind is overflowing with thoughts of an international language.  A language that is decided by factors that are often beyond us; and yet resisted perhaps by those that are just like us.  Resisted for reasons that we seek to understand.  I loved Annie’s comments regarding the complexity also possibly playing a part.  I appreciated Dr. Muth’s points regarding presentation in a language understood by many as opposed to few; and yet the resentment that may be felt by others because the speaker isn’t required to know the ‘other’ cultures, traditions, languages, etc.  I have always been interested in other cultures, traditions, experiences and language.  This post and all of its comments truly caused me to consider my own lingual abilities and perhaps the literary and educational limits I may have created for myself as a result.
As a true melting pot, our country prides itself on being a nation of diversity and inclusion.  There are policies and procedures in our work life, rules and laws for the everyday as well as social expectations regarding topics such as microaggression.  But does true appreciation of the value that can be found in our diversity and various Discourses truly provide enough opportunity or drive to really appreciate this idea of ‘all’?
I consider all of the recent articles that we’ve read of late that talk of education in other countries and their opportunities (often requirements) to promote an educational tradition of bi- or multilingualism. I also ponder that while we have options in the U.S. for learning other languages, I wonder why so many (and how many?) in our country (including myself) still stand as monolinguals?    I myself have always wanted to learn to speak and read another language, but recognize that my desire has never been fueled by necessity due to travel or any set requirement.  I did elect once to give it a run when I was in high school; but, much like Lisa perhaps, gained more skill in memorization than true understanding of the language.   This realization now also causes a new sort of perspective on what bi- or multilingualism may provide an individual as well.
Over this past school year, my family and I have gotten to know another family from my son’s class.  They are a lovely couple with similar interests and we have a fantastic time (don’t you love it when the kid’s play dates turn into grown up ones too??).  This past weekend we had an opportunity to visit their home and enjoy some much needed ‘friend’ time.  As we toured their home, I was intrigued by the various artifacts that she had received from family and friends in Cuba.  She proudly, and patiently at times, told each one’s stories and answered our eager questions.  I learned a lot in just a few hours about values, the country, her culture, the difference between Mexican and Cuban food as well as how much I apparently ADORE Cuban coffee.  Now I will be the first to admit that this short education in no way makes me a new found expert.  I also recognize that their Discourse could provide a different perspective than someone from the same country, but differing Discourse.   But the brief open window to her experiences and culture made for such an amazing opportunity for me; an opportunity that was enriched even more by a brief parental moment during my ‘education’ session.  
Her son was acting up a bit at one time during our conversation and, as she later advised she often does, she turned to him and began fussing/correcting him in Spanish.  My son, who was standing near him, watched her completely intrigued and yet perplexed.  After she’d finished speaking with her son, my son, never shy, asked her “what language were you just speaking?”  At her reply, he stated very matter-of-factly, “Oh, I had absolutely no idea what you were saying.”  And with that, ran off to finish playing.  This somewhat hysterical, and yet slightly enlightening, moment gave me a new appreciation for what the knowledge of many languages can provide.  Upon further discussion, I discovered that she often choses to use her primary language with her family or friends (even when able to say the same things in English) because it provides her an additional level of privacy when in public.  At times, like when she speaks with her mother, she also choses Spanish over English when it is more comfortable for the receiver to use and/or understand.   
So as I consider these few examples, I cannot help but wonder if taking time to learn other languages could not only provide monolinguals such as myself flexibility in communication for instances needing more privacy; but I wonder too if it would also provide opportunities that we have not yet considered? Like being able to communicate with someone else that we may not have been able to before.  Would it also allow us to have some insight into other cultures and traditions that we have not before been privy too; as we’ve previously been depending instead on someone else’s interpretations.  An empowering position perhaps; one that may cause pause in considering one’s definition of power when it comes to our world….could proposing a nation of multilingualism provide more power than this push for an international language?  Imagine how much more insight and appreciation we could have for another culture if we were able to read books, magazines, websites, etc. that we normally may not have access to due to our limited language abilities? 
As I end my ramblings, at least here in the blog, please understand that I am not attempting to pose an argument against finding a language perhaps that can speak to many, at least in the regard that similar educational opportunities can be understood by ‘all’ or more.  I am instead asking if we should consider the possibilities that an enlarged literacy and language lens could provide for an individual as we seek to enrich our own lives.  Consider how much we’ve learned in just one semester by reading wonderful (sometimes provocative) articles and texts available to those that speak the English language?  Now imagine just how many more we could discover should we arm ourselves with the language that allows us to see them.


  1. Being multi-lingual offers us so much that I respect! I greatly enjoyed the perspective you shared watching your son and friend interact. It is so great that your son shows that natural curiosity and acceptance. Perhaps the next generation will be more readily multi-lingual than our generation. Your son is probably already picking up words and phrases while he plays. A friend of mine had reservations when her middle school age son was put in a co-taught ESL classroom at the start of the year - he was one of four native English speakers! She quickly learned how much this setting had to offer her son and he is now learning Spanish just by being partially emersed in the setting. He probably could have taught me a great deal. His mom is now delighted with this educational opportunity!

  2. Hi Holly-your post really got me thinking, too. My son went to German school from age 3-7. He was on his way to learning German just as we moved. It was not until 9th grade that he picked it up again. Of course, we could have found private tutors to work with him along the way, but life keeps us busy and takes us in other directions. I personally think our American education system doesn't value foreign language studies as much as the STEM areas, and with all the tension around scarce resources, foreign language education does not seem to be a priority. I completely agree that learning an additional language opens up so many windows to the culture and discourse in which it is embedded.

    As an aside, my son doesn't like school and homework very much, but he continues to do well in German. Sometimes my family tries to have dinner conversations "auf Deutsch." In a strange way, speaking (rather poorly) German makes us feel closer because of our shared experiences with the language and culture.

    Thank you. Susan

  3. Holly,

    Your post brought to mind my grade school experience in McAllen, Texas. Second grade, I think and one of the few school experiences that stick with me. McAllen is at the southernmost tip of Texas. The schools teach both Spanish and English (1/2 day in each language). As a child I loved it for many of the reasons you bring up. At that young age we learn so quickly, not only the language, but the culture. Perhaps most valuable, though, is the realization that we are all "human together." One cannot help but think that if we had more opportunities to share a language (or a culture) the world might be a bit more welcoming place!

  4. Holly, one thing us monolinguals miss out on is the meta-linguistic awareness that comes from translating across languages. Our grammars are our lenses to the world. In my world it's all about "green chairs" and "stinky feet." This modifier-modified relationship is, for me, "natural." I reify this order until some pesky Francophile starts talking about "chairs green" and "feet stinky." It's only then that I realize (for a fleeting second) how arbitrary language is. The very way I think about the universe and everything I love in it is a mere construction--one of countless possibilities--that enables and limits very utterance, perception, reflection.

  5. Holly - I keyed in on one paragraph. When the mother corrected her child in Spanish, it reminded me of something I did with my children. When they were small, they didn't yet speak French, but knew two French phrases: "What did you forget?" and "One does not do that here." I did this for exactly the same reason as the mother. I didn't embarrass my children by correcting them publicly, and they knew immediately that what I was saying needed to be listened to.


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.