October 08, 2018

Language and Culture

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Have you studied a foreign language? If you have and are in the U.S., you may be in the minority, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center. According to the report, about 20 percent of K-12 students in the U.S. were enrolled in a foreign language course in 2017. By contrast, 92 percent of European students were learning a foreign language during this time frame.

Wide disparities exist regarding foreign language study within the U.S. according the report, ranging from 51 percent of New Jersey students to just 9 percent in Arizona, Arkansas, and New Mexico. These disparities largely stem from differing state requirements; just ten states and the District of Columbia have a foreign language requirement for high school graduation.

Language is a central part of culture, a core concept within the study of sociology. Culture encompasses a group’s norms and values, customs, rituals, and language, among other things. Thus, learning another language can be an excellent way to develop a broader understanding of culture.

Learning the historical origin of words helps us understand its place in our culture and how social changes might create changes in language. In recent years, we can see how our language has shifted to reflect changing notions of gender: no longer are “he” and “his” used as default descriptors of generic individuals, nor do we still substitute “men” when we mean “all people.” Words often reflect cultural values and shifting norms.

Likewise, learning other languages helps us see some cultural similarities and connections. Some languages have many words for a concept for which we have few in English, and vice versa. And of course English words are borrowed heavily from other languages. Just a few everyday examples:

Arabic: Alcohol, Sofa

Chinese: Ketchup, Tea

French: Garage, Ambulance

German: Kindergarten, Noodle

Greek: Gymnasium, Democracy  

Japanese: Emoji, Tsunami

Spanish: Colorado, Mosquito

We might do some further investigation to find out how these and other words became part of common English usage. Some are likely the result of trade patterns, colonization, immigration, and more recently, globalization. Language is a gateway into the confluence between history and culture.

So why are we in the U.S. less than consistent when it comes to learning a second or even third language, particularly compared with our European counterparts? It’s not that English is an easier language to master. Unlike many other languages, which adhere to grammatical, pronunciation and spelling rules pretty reliably, English is filled with exceptions that we have to memorize.

Ironically, the ubiquity of English spoken around the world makes it less necessary for us to learn another language. Thanks to the history of British colonialism and later American economic and political dominance, much of the world speaks at least some English. Our monolinguism can reflect the global perception many have of Americans around the world, that we are largely disinterested in cultures or events outside of the U.S.

In the U.S., speaking English has been equated with citizenship, even though the U.S. has no official language. Immigrants and multilingual families often face pressure to speak only English amongst one another, even from strangers in public, as this Los Angeles Times essay details.

According to a study described in Scientific American, the optimal time for learning a second language for complete fluency is under the age of 10; after 18 learning a new language can be more difficult, but not impossible. Other research supports the greater ability to learn another language in early childhood, especially grammatical rules. All the more reason to learn a second language in school, before high school if possible.

I was fortunate to not only learn a foreign language in school, but to begin in elementary school. Our lessons were short and age-appropriate (we learned to count and some very basic words at first, with no written work until middle school). It was a fun break from the routine of other subjects, and helped lay the foundation for more serious study in high school.

Despite allowing my Spanish speaking skills to erode over a few decades, I can still call upon these years of study in a pinch. Despite trying to learn Italian for a recent trip, I found myself unintentionally speaking in Spanish when trying to communicate beyond very short Italian phrases.

As I wrote about in a previous blog post, this was a humbling experience, one that helped me feel what it must be like for others struggling with a new language as an adult. While I was able to return home and be a native speaker again, for others the challenge might not end.

While I will probably not become fluent in another language, I have set a goal to be able to engage in (very) basic conversations in a few other languages. Not only is this a window into our own and other cultures, but language can help connect people from diverse backgrounds.

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