March 4, 2009

Don't Be Indo-Eurocentric

I continue to realize just how Eurocentric the American education system has become (and has always been?). While devouring posts on Language Log, I clicked on a link that led me to Ethnologue, my new favorite obsession.

Ethnologue is a catalog of all the languages in the world. In other words, a lifetime of perusing entertainment. But while clicking around happily, I remembered that I didn't know what it meant when it classified the language: Indo-European, Slavic, South, Western. I had a vague idea, but aren't most languages Indo-European? And wait, what on earth is there besides Indo-European? I had no clue.

So, I went to the page detailing language families. And, as it turns out, there are a lot of other classifications on the same branch level as Indo-European. A couple hundred, I'd estimate. And Indo-European is by no means the largest grouping.

So darn. Why is it that in my life I have only ever heard of languages that were spoken by people who look like me? Why did I never even consider that Australian aborigines might have had their own language, besides the English of the colonists? Why is it that even now, on average, only Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Latin are taught in schools in my country?

All of those languages are European. Of the Indo-European language family. Within that, all but German belong to the Italic classification. Why do we focus on such a small, related group of languages? I know that some schools offer less common languages as well, but on the whole, those classes are not standard. They may also be clubs, instead of a regular class.

On the bright side, Japanese and Mandarin are infiltrating our classrooms. Finally.

Now, an argument in favor of those standard five language options is colonization. When Britain and France and Spain extended their empires out into the world, so they extended their languages. Still, today, much of the world is fluent to some degree in at least one of those languages (with the exception of Latin). So, why bother to learn any others?

Well, to start-- they're interesting. Perhaps not for everyone, I understand, but perhaps another choice would be more relevant to some students' interests. Perhaps they are not offered because they are "hard." This might be true, in that these languages are more different from our own and have fewer cognates than the standard offerings. But, if anyone ever listened to an argument of difficulty, then no high schooler would ever take physics.

Also, let me be clear-- I am not advocating teaching some jungle dialect of a native tribe in Brazil. But perhaps we should take a look at what language skills are needed, wanted in our country, and teach to fill the knowledge void.

The State Department has identified "desirable" languages for translators, etc, and they're not any of those five I listed above. They are: Arabic, Farsi, Russian, Hindi, Turkish, Korean, and Mandarin. These are the languages of the countries that America needs to be able to communicate with. And they are not all Indo-European.* None are Italic. We can no longer afford to stay Indo-Eurocentric, or we will lose step with the emerging powers of the world.

I am lucky in that I have the opportunity to study Russian, a non-standard offering. I just wish others had the same opportunities that I am offered.

*Classifications: Arabic (Afro-Asiatic), Farsi (Indo-European), Russian (Indo-European), Hindi (Indo-European), Turkish (Altaic), Korean (Language Isolate), and Mandarin (Sino-Tibetan)


Chris Lehmann said...

There's another reason... finding the teachers to teach those languages. The Romance Languages have state certifications, schools of education, etc... as long as we tie teaching to certification, there needs to be an entire apparatus around getting teachers in the classroom. That is one more way that we slow innovation in schools.

yura said...

I love learning languages and I've came to realize the ones that are offered at my school are just one of the few hundred languages out there. However, I think only the "main" ones are offered because they are the most dominant today; therefore, more useful. Besides, I think it'd be difficult to teach native languages because it's hard to find the teachers and it's hard to practice the language as there are very small groups of people who are aware of the language.

Poster Printing Online said...

I learned a lot from this post. Looking forward to more...

Gabriela Sellart said...

I think there's even a worse situation. People who speak languages that come from the original inhabitants are educated in the official language. Sometimes their own language is officially recognized if they they live in the original territory. However, when they migrate (and they usually do, looking for job opportunities) their language is considered substandard and a cause of shame. Surprisingly (or not) the languages of immigrants coming from western civilizations bear a high cultural status. At least this is what happens here in Argentina.