By Mina Shah
At the present, somewhere around 7,000 different languages are spoken around the world. Every year, though, more and more languages end up dying out as fewer and fewer people use them. Part of this stems from the fact that less frequently used languages are less frequently taught in schools. This starts a sort of vicious cycle: If only a few people speak a language, teaching that language becomes less useful. That is, a learner of the language would be able to converse with fewer people than if they’d learned something like, say, Mandarin Chinese.
There are several problems, however, with approaching language learning as a mere means to eventually be able to communicate with the maximum number of people or the maximum number of people in a particular area with an important demographic. For example, in California, public school teachers might want to learn Spanish, as over half of public school students during the 2013-14 school year were Hispanic.
First of all, when secondary and higher education institutions only teach “major” languages (those we think of as commonly taught in American schools, often of a Western tradition), it reinforces the perceived import of those languages. These stand in contrast to “minor” languages, which are those of different historic and cultural traditions or structures, such as those from Africa or South Asia. By offering French as opposed to Wolof or Mandarin as opposed to Dzongkha, universities demonstrate an endorsement of the offered language over the one that isn’t offered; it says that French is more important than Wolof, and that Chinese is more important than Gujarati.
This is particularly troubling, because the languages which end up getting endorsed are those which come out of cultures of oppression and imperialism. Languages like European Romance languages and Chinese have become more dominant because of the history of particular nations and cultures exerting power and taking over weaker or less militant nations and cultures. These more powerful countries, especially European ones, have this nasty habit of stealing lands, quashing cultures and forcing assimilation, and this extends to the eradication of less popular languages.
By learning the “major” languages over less popular languages, we reinforce the power relationship between the “major” and “minor” language. To choose to learn a major, more popular language over a less popular language means that the popular language has gained another disciple, and the less popular language has lost one. Thus, the popular language becomes more popular, growing in strength whereas the less popular language becomes less so, weakening further. It would be better, certainly, to learn a “major” language as a second language than no second language at all, but even if no “minor” languages are offered at a particular school, this does not mean that there is no way to learn a “minor” language outside of the structured system.
When the power gap between languages increases in this way and less popular languages begin to die out, we lose some of the cultural diversity that makes our world so dynamic, which is to say, less boring. Furthermore, in a world with only a few “major” languages, we lose opportunities to describe the essential nature of experiences as completely as possible. Different languages have different nuances that allow for more holistic descriptions in some situations more than others.
There is also a problem of encouraging people to study particular languages simply because they will be useful. There is a real value in doing things, generally, that are not necessarily geared toward fulfilling a particular end. One of the biggest criticisms of millennials in present society is that we are and have been obsessed with doing as many things as possible. But not just any “things”; we do things that we can put on our resumes, and things that we can use to prove just how adept we are at completing tasks that will make us “useful.” We do very little just for the sake of the exercise. Learning a non-traditional language would be a way to begin to break down that particular stereotype.
More than that, though, learning languages that are vastly different structurally from our native tongue, while much more difficult, can have great cognitive returns. Learning just another foreign language can help improve decision-making skills, perception, memory and ability to multitask. Learning tonal languages can also help improve affinity to music by priming our brains to be more aware of small changes in pitch.
But, you might argue, one can still reap those benefits by learning a more useful language, like Cantonese. This doesn’t, however, allow us to celebrate the nuances and cultural specificities that are also contained in less “useful” languages. It is true that these cultural elements may not only be contained in the language. However, a whole forced cultural assimilation can be started with the destruction of the culture’s language. As soon as a cornerstone of culture is destroyed, the rest of the culture will soon follow. To stop destroying diversity and start closing the gap between global powers, we should start learning less popular languages and work on preserving more culture.
Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.