One of my personal philosophies is that there is no such thing as a bad reason to learn a language. I suppose there might be some illegal activity I’m not considering when I say that, but you know what I mean. I don’t think there is a reason that is too silly, or geeky, or “pointless”, to learn, or at least try to learn, one of these beautiful, bizarre, complex things we call Language.
I learned Russian on accident. I got interested in Eastern European history when I was in high school and ended up majoring in Eastern European Studies on a whim when I got to college…and when you major in International Studies you have to take one of the languages of the area, and my university didn’t offer Polish or Czech or Bulgarian…next thing I know, I’m eating smoked salmon, watching Vladimir Putin’s New Year’s address on the little television in my host mom’s kitchen in St. Petersburg. Now Russian is like an old friend. An old friend I haven’t spoken too in a long time so I’m getting a little fuzzy… but still, I love that language. I didn’t mean to, but it grew on me.
When I started a beginners’ Arabic class last summer, all of my classmates, fellow Washingtonians, declared that they were there for their jobs at the embassy or the NGO or the Foreign Service. I told my teacher I wanted to learn Arabic because the script is beautiful and I’m obsessed with raï.
When people talk about foreign language teaching in schools, usually the conversation centers around what is most “valuable,” as if one language had more currency than another. Chinese is important because of the economy. Spanish is important because we live in increasingly bilingual communities. Arabic is important because of security issues (this makes me very sad, that that is all Arabic is good for…) We’re told to think practically, and to make sure students think practically too. In these kinds of conversations, classical languages, endangered languages, any kinds of language learning that doesn’t have some political or economic “purpose” is looked down upon. Greek and Latin studies are so last-century. German won’t get you very far these days. But maybe if politics in Russia really get hairy then Russian will be back to Cold-War-usefulness.
Who cares what the reason is? Language learners are richer and smarter and more well-rounded just for the attempt. Every little bit of another language a student learns is another tiny crack in the door between her culture and another one. I find the relentless emphasis on the economic value of education (will this help me get a better job?) to be so cynical and limited.
I know I’m not being very reasonable at all. Time and resource constraints are huge considerations, especially in public secondary education, and I wouldn’t dare ask school teachers to perform more miracles than they already do every day. But still, I think it’s worthwhile to have the conversation. Are there bad reasons to learn a language? Are there “better” reasons?