America's Distrust of Foreign Languages

Foreign languages help free us from ethnocentrism, the delusion that we alone are the measure of all things human, and they connect us to a larger, saner, more humane world.
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A foreign language is a dangerous thing. It can rob us of our comfort, our convictions, and our certainties. For the world is not the same when seen through two different languages, but rather two different worlds. A language is no interchangeable set of signs we hang on fixed objects, but an alchemy which transforms those objects themselves.

Not until we step outside of our language and culture -- not just verbally, but mentally and emotionally, not until we leave behind the assumptions and values of our mother tongue to immerse ourselves in an alien way of viewing the world -- do we realize that the nature of things, their meaning and purpose, their importance and urgency, are not objectively given, but created by language and culture.

Only then can we see that each people, each tradition, does not see the world as it is, but as it would like it to be; that what each calls "reality" is but a collective dream which its members share; and that what we call truth is only the familiar hallowed by time.

We sense these things darkly, and so, as a people, we distrust foreign languages. They draw into question our notions of right; they subvert our bulwark of righteousness; they cast doubt on ours as the only right way. So we control, domesticate, and render them safe. We reduce them to stereotypes and language "requirements." We limit their knowledge to the mundane and basic. We dare not risk long-term, in-depth exposure.

For the same reason, we distrust foreign travel. It might change us if we let it come close. We want prepackaged adventure, antiseptically filtered in air-conditioned comfort through tour bus windows, the unfamiliar kept safely at bay from our hermetically-sealed isolation.

Yet it is only when we spend time in a different culture that we realize that different cultures see the world differently; and only after returning to our own do we sense that both we and our culture are no longer the same. We begin to understand the relativity, impermanence, and fragility of our world, our values, and our way of life. Travel dissolves our illusions.

Our foreign policy also shares this distrust of the foreign. We don't let so-called Third World countries be what they are to pursue their own destinies, but make them movable pawns on our corporate chessboards, on which they are plundered, their leaders bought off, and their people betrayed into serfdom.

We preach tolerance for ideas as long as those ideas agree with our own, international understanding as public relations, but we recall career diplomats who, seeing ourselves through foreign eyes, warn us of the damage we cause. They've been abroad too long, "gone native," lost their perspective.

In a culture that has little patience with whatever is different, we can expect little more of an educational system as defined by that culture. Too much of our curriculum reinforces a jingo provincialism in its photoshopped view of American history, rather than teaching the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Students don't want historical fairy tales, but Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung, an honest coming to terms with our past and integrating it into the national consciousness. This is what a great nation does -- courageously faces its demons and admits its wrongdoing, asks forgiveness and makes amends, and vows to do better.

This is moral grandeur that would stop the sun in the heavens, whereas denial of what one has done only sickens the soul. Better to exorcize the evil spirits and be free of them lest they fester in the subterranean vaults of our national soul. Seneca put it quite simply, "Part of the cure is the wish to be cured."

In teaching history, we neglect the panoramic sweep and multifariousness of other times and cultures that could save us from the insular myopia and hubristic fate of "Ozymandias, King of Kings." We don't need to learn more and more about America. It is already too much with us in our xenophobic Fortress America. We don't need more and more reasons about why we are right. What we need is more air that comes of a larger perspective on the world and ourselves.

To love it, we must leave it by not succumbing to it, getting detachment from it, for it is only when we get distance from ourselves that we come closer to ourselves to see ourselves as we really are. Education worthy of the name should make us citizens of a larger world, impart an Olympian outlook, not reduce us to the worm's-eye view of a narrow tribalism!

To be sure, we should love our country, but our country is not the policies of the particular administration, party, or plutocracy which is running the country. Our country is our better selves as enshrined in those thrilling ideals set forth in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution with its Bill of Rights.

True patriotism is loving our country by wanting to make it better and returning it to its pristine self; by decrying our government's shocking privileging of the already privileged and its heartless warfare against its own people, especially the poor and our children, tens of millions of whom, to our nation's eternal shame and embarrassment before the rest of the world, must go to bed hungry.

It beggars belief what is happening in America today -- our very government treating the American people as if it were the enemy! We are forever sending our troops abroad while running away from our problems at home. There are always untold billions for defending freedom around the globe, but the cupboard is always bare for the needs of the American people. FDR, where are you?

The president and the Congress, with exceptions well-known to all, betray us by their studied inaction, with some even boasting for causing the catastrophe. In the meantime, the American Dream has retreated to the enclaves of the Super Rich, at whose tables certain Supreme Court justices are always welcome.

"Thou shalt not be different" is our national creed. However, foreign languages teach four lessons about being different: other cultures are, indeed, different, but that doesn't mean that those cultures are wrong, but just different; that since they are different with different perspectives, they cannot fully be fathomed, let alone judged, and much less condemned; that there are different ways of being human and of being right; and that no nation has a monopoly on either commodity.

Foreign languages help free us from ethnocentrism, the delusion that we alone are the measure of all things human, and they connect us to a larger, saner, more humane world. It is because of their magical powers that foreign languages have always been numbered among the liberal arts, which liberate us from the two-fold sickness, or that two-headed monster, of hate and distrust, assuming, of course, that we wish to be cured.

We must outgrow that ancient Manichaean view of the world which sees others as Darkness and ourselves as the Light. It is a nightmare vision which sanctifies hate, a view of our fellow mortals unworthy of us.

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