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17
Sep

Languages

Learning a second language is clearly one of the hardest, most admirable, and most rewarding learning experiences I have found. This, I say, knowing no more than a few scattered phrases in a few scattered languages. I say this as I say not learning a musical instrument has been one of my great regrets: without knowing, without really trying.

I can gurgle some Japanese, stumble over even less Twi, trickle clichés in Spanish, and barb with buzz phrases in German, leaving French the only language that I can even fake conversational ability. The phrase, “I dabble,” comes to mind. I haven’t done well, but I have done.

The world around the United States has so many amazing opportunities for people to learn language. Americans clamor about it: how the U.S. is monolingual, leading a multilingual world. The stars and stripes are leading a parade with snickers in languages we can’t understand following us the entire way.

I’ve roofed with Latinos working in the States illegally, I’ve eaten with migrants hoping to work in the States illegally, I’ve played basketball with West African teenagers acting like they were in the States illegally and I’ve flirted with Japanese convenience store checkout girls who thought about moving to the States legally. They all had some English they were proud to throw at me.

Though my pride might fight me to admit it, hearing my native language, even coming from foreign mouths, moved me, warmed me, comforted me in surroundings that most would think would keep from any of those emotions. Yet, sometimes that line between educational enlightenment and submissive rhetoric troubles me.

Let me steal and then retread a path laid by Robert Phillipson; have I been walking through “linguistic imperialism?” Phillipson wrote a sinisterly critical book titled with the same phrase, a book of which I read only half, labeling English a tool used by neo-colonialists. Oops, I said the ‘c’ word.

Now I tend to think Phillipson went too far, a common American liberal attack on everything that is in current function. But, I’ve been to Ghana, where the official language is English. Come to think of it, I don’t know of any West African country that has an official language that isn’t French or English. Am I wrong? Doesn’t that seem even just a little unsettling?

Understand, I don’t believe there is an imperialist mastermind that sits at home, twirling his moustache, thinking of ways to conquer the world. The reality is that now in most African countries this linguistic imperialism is institutionally so at best. Think South Africa, where fellow JYA cast member Lauren is stationed. There are four or five languages fairly widely spoken in the former apartheid-state, without a huge deal of overlap. The colonizing language suddenly becomes the only way to unite what would otherwise be a senselessly bordered state.

But, in the West African state of Burkina Faso, where some 90 percent of the population speaks various forms of a similar language, French remains the official tongue.

In West African Sierra Leone, English is the official language but is used by a minority (its literate population). Note: Krio, an English-based Creole-speak brought by freed Jamaican slaves is understood by overwhelming portions of the population.

Now, say that I am out of my field of knowledge. Tell me that I am on a silly NBC reality show and that I am supposed to speaking about sushi in Japan, not the warfare of language abroad.

But, that fight doesn’t need to be excluded from my time in Tokyo. I actually tend think pushing English as the international language (listen to me European Union) is for the best. It might be fair to call me Eurocentric as British imperialists made my argument possible, but rather than fight it, I say benefit from it.

Still, I think any educational system that isn’t actively pursuing multiple languages is obsolete. A university that seems to suppress other languages worries me. And that is where this long-winded rant was born.

Temple University-Japan is an odd school in a lot of ways. It wisely markets itself as the oldest and largest foreign university in the country. There are 2,600 students from 40 different countries, according to the university’s website. As an officially recognized foreign university, TUJ has the opportunity to give American undergraduate and graduate degrees a continent away. To do this, TUJ, understandably, mandates that English is the school’s official language.

Yet, I was in the school library recently and uncomfortably watched a girl, who simply couldn’t speak English well enough to convey her question, start crying, as a librarian, who could speak the girl’s native Japanese, had to adamantly refuse to use nihongo.

I spoke to someone in the TUJ’s administration who told me, without wanting any name mentioned, that the school’s brain trust regularly reminds, if not threatens, professors and employees that English is the only language to be spoken. There are signs in the hallways repeating that there is, “No Japanese,” allowed.

I have been here four weeks. I know nothing of the school’s development, its legal requirements, or philosophy. I have done no wholesale investigative research on the issue. But, still isn’t that troubling?

Luckily, because of subject matter, professors skirt the issue and rightfully give the majority Japanese students an advantage with regular use of Japanese phrases. I just don’t think it would be right for me to be studying in Japan, surrounded by Japanese students, and have no problem understanding class discussions.

I will hoist the flag in support of teaching every person English, but any attempt at stopping other language-use is a scary reminder of a crueler past and foolish policy that will, in the end, bog education, not buoy it.
Jaa,
Christopher

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