Language, Language Everywhere-But Not So Many We Speak

by multilingualmania on May 12, 2011

in Multilingualism


One of the big advantages of multilingualism is that it expands one’s horizon – and a look beyond the horizon helps find new ideas. Unfortunately, when one compares between language skill in the USA and Europe, for example, it becomes clear that the same problems apply – though with quite some difference in context and policy.

The USA appear better than European countries (to the outside observer, at least) at accepting immigrants into their midst. There have always been tensions between earlier immigrants and new ones, but you are rather welcome, whether to live amongst your own people or to create a new identity for yourself. There is little need for everyone to become exactly alike, other than accepting that this freedom to be who you want to be applies to everyone equally. At least, that’s the idea.

Interestingly, although English was never made the official language, it is this language alone that is considered the sine qua non of life in and as an American, though. Immigrants may have spoken their first language at home, but their children mostly grow up with English. This appears to happen to such an extent that other languages tend soon to be forgotten – and that American foreign language education in schools is notoriously bad; knowledge of foreign languages low. In fact, one is even left to wonder whether concern about Hispanic immigrants isn’t so particularly strong, not because there are illegal immigrants amongst them, but because their influx has been changing the dominant language in some areas of the USA to Spanish.

European societies, in contrast, do not define themselves as immigrant societies, even as they exist in a multilingual context.

Especially in EU politics, the diversity has come to the fore. One of the EU’s most costly (and technically, avoidable) expenditures is the large number of translations: basically, into every member countries’ language. Rather than go for one official language (or a few, as with the UN), it was decided that all member countries’ languages would be treated equally. This came about because there was – and continues to be – fear that small countries could be marginalized by the big players within the EU.
Initiatives to support the learning of other EU member’s languages are also under way, especially at university level. The stated aim is that every citizen should become able to speak two foreign languages; and to reach that, children should be taught accordingly.

Still, the dominance of certain languages is readily apparent: In daily life, a country’s or group’s single major language is usually dominant; in foreign language teaching, English is, as a matter of course, the most popular, followed by Spanish and French. German language teaching can oftentimes be found in Eastern European countries, but Eastern European languages (although they may be offered as school subjects) are but rarely learned by high school students in German-speaking Central Europe.

Immigrants from outside the EU and their languages are seen as more of a problem than a chance: Turkish, in particular, is quite common in parts of Germany and Austria, but students of that background and their sometimes limited command of the German language is constantly criticized – but the dominant approach to the problem is best summarized by a recent call to institute a “German language only” policy in schools, even during lunch breaks. The stereotype about Turks being too different has gone to the point where even those who speak perfect German may encounter discrimination (as I personally witnessed in a stand-off between three very modern Turkish girls speaking a truly wonderful German and an old Austrian complaining about all the un-educated foreigners in the lowest of dialects – the irony of the scene was amazing).

Clearly, on both sides of the Atlantic – and probably everywhere – we are a long way away from a situation in which multilingualism is normality. As a first step towards an understanding and acceptance of people from other cultures, however, it sure would be a good step.

About the Author: Gerald Zhang-Schmidt is an independent scholar with a background in ecology and cultural anthropology, writing about his interests at www.zhang-schmidt.com, www.beyond-eco.org and www.chilicult.com. He hails from Austria, and currently works as German lecturer in China. During his career, he has learned something of nine languages and forgotten much of it again.
Other Articles by Gerald Zhang-Schmidt:
What Multilingualism?
What Languages Do You Speak?
Not a Child Anymore

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