Thursday, April 27, 2017

Language Legislation is Identity Theft

In her article “The Push to Ban Arabic Sermons in Europe’s Mosques,” published in The Atlantic on April 12, 2017, Sigal Samuel writes, “In several Western European countries, some politicians want to force imams to deliver sermons only in the official language: In Germany, imams should preach in German; in Italy, in Italian; in Britain, in English; in France, in French.

“To justify this requirement, two rationales are cited.  Some say it will function as a counterterrorism strategy.  Others say it will promote the social integration of Muslims.  A few appeal to both lines of reasoning.”

We could discuss all the ways in which this is obviously Islamophobic and racist—as Samuel points out, no one is proposing that Catholic priests stop praying in Latin or that Jewish rabbis cease using Hebrew.  Or we could discuss how, according to terrorism expert Scott Atran, “As a counterterrorism strategy, it’s likely to be worthless,” since “considerably less than 1 percent of ‘susceptible’ populations ... ever come close to joining violent extremist movements.”

But I want to talk instead about how language legislation of any kind, whether it’s the legal privileging of one language or dialect over another, or the systematic attempt to outlaw or eradicate a language completely, is morally untenable and antithetical to any portrait of a free society.

Linguists recognize that an individual’s native language and dialect are as integral a part of that person’s identity as their race or their gender.  During the boarding school era of Native American colonization, when Native children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to white boarding schools, they were often physically punished for speaking the language of their tribes.  Along with forcing Native children to cut their hair and wear western clothing, robbing whole generations of their language was seen as an integral step in killing Native culture, and in many places it was successful.

Further, it’s no accident that even as Black people make major strides in education, government, science, and other parts of mainstream American society, hallmarks of Black identity such as natural Black hairstyles and Black English are still often considered improper or unprofessional in workplaces and schools.  The adoption of white standards of beauty and language are a prerequisite for advancement for Black people.

Attacking a culture by attacking its language is not a new practice, and talks of banning Arabic in European mosques are simply a novel way of doing it, as morally reprehensible as beating Native children for conversing with their peers in Lakota or Diné.  But in addition to this, prohibiting Muslim people from worshipping in their native language is a legislative attempt to impede their ability to practice their religion at all.

Studies show—and multilingual people will attest—that emotions feel different in the speaker’s native language.  Writing in Frontiers in Psychology, Catherine L. Caldwell-Harris says, “Bilingual speakers frequently report that swearing, praying, lying, and saying I love you feel differently when using a native rather than a foreign language.”  In a secondary language, professing love or praying forgiveness can feel akin to communicating through an interpreter; it can erect an emotional filter, a barrier between the speaker and the intended recipient.

Regardless of your attitude toward Islam in particular or theism in general, if you agree that the free exercise of religion is a right worth defending, then you must acknowledge that the imposition of language bans in mosques (or any religious gathering place) is a serious infringement on that right.  Even if you do not accept the fundamental premise of prayer—that a personal god is listening and, perhaps, responding—again, the fact remains that if you support the religious individual’s right to practice prayer and exercise their relationship (real or imagined) with that god, forcing them to do so in a secondary language necessarily deprives them of that right.

If you are non-religious, imagine a comparable scenario: that you are forced to interact with your spouse or your children exclusively in a language other than your native one.  If English is your first language, imagine never hearing “I love you,” but only “Te quiero” or “Je t’aime” or “Ich liebe dich.”  If you ever learned to swear in a second language, you’ll recognize that for a native English speaker, “Fick dich” or “Baise toi” simply does not carry the same weight as a sincere, well-aimed “Fuck you.”  Although you understand their meanings, the words are physically processed in a different part of the brain and do not elicit the same emotional response.

Language legislation in any form—whether aimed at religion or some other aspect of human life—is a violation of an individual’s fundamental right to their identity.  It has been imposed on marginalized cultures for centuries and, in some cases, has achieved its aim of annihilating those cultures.  If we recognize the value of diversity, and our goal is not total homogeneity in appearance, thought, and speech, then we must speak out against these legally sanctioned attempts to eradicate linguistic practices that differ from the dominant culture.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Book Review: Hyde by Daniel Levine (2014)


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Hyde is a retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the perspective of Edward Hyde.  Except “retelling” isn’t the right word; “rewriting” would be more accurate.  Levine keeps only the barest skeleton of plot from Stevenson’s original, dismissing Jekyll’s own account of events as “lies” and reinventing major characters wholesale, including Hyde himself.  In the process, he turns Stevenson’s spare but acute examination of the nature of morality—which left most details to the reader’s imagination—into a lurid saga of child abuse, bizarre forms of self-denial, and dissociative identity disorder.

Even if I didn’t hold Stevenson’s work close to my heart, it would be difficult to judge Levine’s new version without comparison, particularly when his Hyde attacks the original directly as “abstruse and misleading nonsense.”  That said, Hyde is, on its own, an entertaining read; it keeps the pages turning.  And Levine deserves credit for his skillful blend of 19th and 21st century styles, which feels simultaneously modern and classic.

On the balance, however, Hyde seems in search of an audience that doesn’t exist.  Those readers not well familiar with The Strange Case will miss the significance of many of Hyde’s twists and much of its commentary, while fans of Stevenson’s novella may suspect that Levine is trying, without success, to improve upon it.  If you enjoy modern takes on classic stories, look instead for any of Gregory Maguire’s brilliant and imaginative work, and leave Hyde to his brooding on the shelf. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Value (Not Profit) in Studying a Foreign Language

"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say." -- Nephew Fred, A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens)


Nashville Public Radio reporter Blake Farmer asked this question in the article linked above on April 11, 2017.  He writes that about 11% of Tennessee high school graduates don't receive the required two years of foreign language instruction.  Instead, the state allows them an exemption, with only their parents' consent as a prerequisite.  Opponents of this practice argue that skipping the foreign language classes will make it difficult for these students to get into college, but proponents point out that most Tennessee graduates won't be going on to college anyway, and that in areas with high unemployment, classes like welding--which will help students earn technical certifications and find jobs--are more valuable than French or Spanish.

Naturally this raises questions about why high schools and colleges require foreign language credits in the first place, particularly for students in majors or career tracks where proficiency in a second language will not be an obvious need.  Should these requirements be eliminated in favor of classes with more immediate, practical value?

You can make an argument about the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, including delayed onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia.  But until the U.S. is ready to completely overhaul language education practices in public schools (for example, by implementing dual-immersion programs in K through 5), most students will not achieve the degree of fluency necessary to reap those benefits.

What, then, is the value of a meager two years of foreign language study for a rural Tennessee student in an area of severe unemployment?

One possible benefit is greater empathy toward others.  At least one study has shown this effect not only in bilingual children, but in children who are simply exposed to another language on a regular basis.

My own experience of studying Russian and skyping weekly with a citizen of Moscow has reinforced this idea.  Studying a foreign language isn’t just a healthy workout for the brain; languages are spoken by people, and you cannot divorce a language from the people who speak it and their culture.  Studying Spanish, for example, provides a window into Spanish-speaking cultures, and fosters empathy for the people who hail from them.

The ongoing debate about immigration is marked by a lack of empathy on the part of those who argue for building a wall, for banning refugees, for isolationism.  If we can combat this problem with foreign language instruction in public schools, shouldn’t we?

Perhaps this raises a larger question: what is the primary purpose of public education?  Is it simply to prepare students for the job market?  Or is it to create thoughtful, creative, civically engaged, and well-rounded individuals?  If we believe it is the latter, then public schools across the country must take foreign language learning more seriously than they currently do.


My TED Talk

My TED Talk from TEDx Rapid City, June 28, 2017.