Garcia-Merritt: Language in America — More is better


Graphic: Megan Wolff/Iowa State Daily

Opinion: Garcia-Merritt 10/1

Gabe Garcia-Merritt

According to a report released by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2007, in which the rates of language use in the United States between 1980 and 2000 were compared, there was an increase of 140 percent in people who spoke a language other than English at home, while English as the sole language used at home rose 20.5 percent. As this rise was occurring, the population of the United States grew by 33.6 percent, according to the study. If one were to take this report at face value, it could be understood the United States is becoming more multilingual. That same census from 2000 informs the reader there are 322 languages spoken in the United States, which would seem to confirm the idea that Americans are becoming increasingly multilingual.

So is this a bad thing? I don’t think so in the least.

I believe you can still be a hamburger-loving, firework-throwing, corn-fed American who didn’t learn English as their primary language, who doesn’t use English as their primary language. In my academic department, anthropology, there is a range of languages spoken by the graduate students such as myself, whose research requires they travel all over the world. English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Tagalog and various dialects of these languages are all spoken; this allows us as researchers to interact with people and make connections, to be more global and develop new perspectives.

Should other languages be mandatory in school? Personally, I think they should be mandatory at an earlier stage than high school, and for a longer period of time. Students in other countries learn up to three languages at the same time, so why don’t we?

One could argue English is the new Lingua Franca of our age: Because of the global presence of English, we shouldn’t have to learn other languages and we can be comfortable in our position as leaders in the creation of cultural material (movies, TV shows, etc) consumed all over the world. I disagree with these ideas as I think, in the long run, it makes us less capable of interacting with other cultures, and our place as top dog won’t last forever.

To only teach one language and not broaden students’ horizons is ethnocentric, as it deprives them of becoming aware of how similar different cultures can be. If we never learned how to interact with other cultures and peoples, humanity as a whole would probably still be divided into micro-societies dependant on geography.

Language dominance is a fluid thing; Latin and Greek were once common languages among learned people, given a place of prominence; now as students, there is no requirement to learn them. They are no longer relevant; the day will come, whether soon or many, many years from now, where English is no longer the language of internationalism.

Having lived in Spain and gone to school there for a year, I know both English and French are taught, starting in what would be equivalent to elementary school; neither of these languages are commonly used by a sizable community, unlike the United States, where there are sizable groups of minorities that speak other languages.

And yet, here, in many places (my home state of Arizona, for example), foreign languages are relegated to the position of “elective courses,” where they are optional, and if they are mandatory, the time they are mandatory is generally fewer than four years; at my high school, it was only two years. Can you learn a language in two years? Certainly. Can you learn a language with two years of high school instruction? Probably not (attention from instructors and practice are key elements, and in public schools, there might be many students, and they might only get that class for an hour a day), though everyone is different.

Learning new languages will open many doors and grant you many opportunities, whether it’s getting a nice job overseas, being able to impress a co-worker from some other part of the world or just being able to make new friends. Wouldn’t we want that for anyone, especially for our children? For ourselves?

The United States is a country dependent on the global economy; being a shut-in and refusing to allow plurality would be detrimental to the country’s future. After all, we are a nation of mixed cultures and varied languages.