Studying a language without learning the nusances of culture and historic ideas and connotations of the language can result in just as much misunderstanding as the mispronunciation of a word. While schools focus on verbs and enunciation as authenticity, the real danger is losing sight of the China’s broad world view. China’s traditional vision of reality as a paradigm with complex, interactive, contradictory, transforming passive and active forces, each of which can have prime influence is equally as important to understanding China but not yet as “cool” as rambling off a few sentences in Mandrin.
The same holds true for the study of Spanish. More than a working langauage, it is a gateway to a world of ideas and experiences that are a part of a human treasury many Americans no longer hold dear.
It is a great irony that the study of languages has a danger implicit at its base: the purpose of making the world more American, the desire to make ourselves understood without an investment in understanding the legacy and grand traditions of others who spoke and created the language being learned. Frantz Fanon once said to speak a language means “above all to assume a culture, to carry the weight of a civilization” . . to be afforded “a remarkable power.” Being able to ask directions and order corporate cuisine may be practical, but it doesn’t produce the talented tenth so persuasively advocated for by WEB DuBois, who studied in Germany and England, a trained community that can apply the skills and ideas that are the legacy of the global community to problems in order to generate new approaches and solutions.
To be honest, I don’t speak Chinese, but I still use the I Ching, whose forecasting method I learned decades ago in college, to generate models and review procedural steps and warnings for issues of social justice. In the choice between learning the language or learning the great ideas of the dynasties that drove its political and social actions, I have always much preferred cultural literacy. I think the ultimate goal for those who want to exceed the utilitarian use of language is to learn to think in the language – in the way the best native speakers do. Then a part of world peace will be the lack of the “ontological resistance” that Fanon spoke of. I know as a SC tour guide working in a region where the only African language was created in America, my clients enjoy the forms and meaning within the language as much as its usual phrasing and articulations. The words, once thought to be assigned to those unlettered and untrained, do hold and reveal a civilization transforming and surviving by wrapping and preserving its humanity in ideas shared and maintained through speech. That language’s function was very different from the status assigned by outsiders. To guard against this contradiction, learning languages should lead to fluency in global thinking.