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The Power of Many Voices.

Red Wasp ACTFL I  11-19-09

By Freddie A. Bowles
San Diego, California

It’s about both. The journey and the destination.

Who Is the Enemy Now?

Twenty-first century air travel has become perfunctory, intrusive, and extremely controlled. We are all viewed as potential bad guys by the keepers of the gate.

If you’re too young to have experienced the pleasure of flying in the previous century, then you won’t bemoan the loss of something you never had. But it was nicer back then. I recall more gentle, halcyon days at the local airport, when you could walk to the gate with your loved ones to bid farewell. You were never ordered to disrobe or unshod to prove your airworthiness.

One becomes accustomed to the embarrassments of walking in stocking feet beside a conveyor belt of your scrutinized belongings. Eventually, the embarrassing and intrusive will become a seldom noticed standard procedure.

In the Company of a Saintly Protector.

Wednesday’s journey began auspiciously, despite the awkwardness of the cattle-line — prods ready for those who ding at the magic arch — with no wait to check-in and a very courteous and helpful attendant at the American Airlines counter at XNA Arkansas. St. Anthony flew with us today.

My travel companion, Kristen Novotny, Spanish teacher at a nearby high school, arrived in the nick of time to board our flight from XNA to Dallas. Miraculously, it was on-time.

The layover in Dallas was a short one with our gate in the same terminal a short walk away. Even more fortuitously, we ran into a colleague from the University of Arkansas Fort Smith, Brenda Ross, who kindly sat with our luggage while we grabbed a sandwich for the long flight to San Diego — no meals-on-wheels in these cost-trimming days.

Our three-hour flight to the west coast was also on-time and pleasant enough. Kristen and I snatched brief naps, despite the murmur of almost two hundred voices in the cabin and the usual loud whine of jet engines from the wings.

The landing was spectacular. We flew through the maze of concrete mountains, brightly lit like sparklers on a Fourth of July night, to land right on the edge of the ocean. We could even see the harbor dotted with ships and boats bobbing in the cool evening air.

Bread and a Revolution

Debarking was quick. Our bags were first off the conveyor belt. We found a taxi without delay and hopped in. Striking up a conversation, we discovered our driver was originally from Iran. He was surprised and delighted to find that I had visited his country during the Shah’s regime.

When asked about my favorite memory, I told him it was the bread and a visit to a bakery in Meshad. I asked him if there were any Iranian bakers in San Diego, and he replied, “Yes!” — then offered me a sample from his favorite baker. He said he ate some for lunch everyday and just happened to have an extra slice.

Then he shared his story. An international student at the end of the Shah’s regime, he finished his master’s degree in mechanical engineering just as the revolution began in Iran. He said he never dreamed he would study abroad or end-up living abroad, but he resisted the urge to return home when politics and religion became a comingled entity in his homeland.

Protest and Solidarity

I remember watching Iranian students and a few of their American friends hold a protest and solidarity march down Dickson Street in Fayetteville when I returned from my journey in 1976. About 150 students, mostly masked and robed, walked the length of Dickson to protest the Shah’s regime. It was an ominous march.

Our driver told us he had lost his job as an engineer and was now driving a taxi for a living. We digressed into ruminations on the long, rich history of Iran and the fragility of cultures. Suddenly, we were pulling into the drive at the Marriott.

Speaking Up for Languages

It’s conference time again — the last of the semester, conference number four in my academic universe, and the most prestigious and largest of them all.

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) launches its annual convention today at the San Diego Convention Center. This year’s theme, Speaking Up for Languages . . . . The Power of Many Voices, sends a strong message: Teachers must advocate for their students and advocate for our profession.

Our nation, the United States of America, is not a strong proponent of the value of languages and doesn’t encourage its many millions of students to learn multiple languages. For those among us who actually speak another language, the nation either suppresses or frowns upon the ability to be language diverse. Many Americans, including educators, insist on an “English Only” approach.

Why do we, a nation of immigrants, react so strongly against multilingualism?

To Suppress or to Encourage?

We have millions of students whose first language is not English. Instead of helping them to become bilingual, we suppress their first language and track them into an English-only world. The irony is that our monolingual native English speakers, who would like to become bilingual, aren’t provided sufficient encouragement or opportunity because we don’t have widespread support for the effective and sustained teaching of foreign languages.

The ACTFL proficiency guidelines show that even with K-12 instruction in another language, a student would only reach a low intermediate level of proficiency in a traditional language program. Our government gives lip-service to the need for proficient speakers of many critical languages, including Arabic and Chinese, but the educational system is slow to train teachers and even slower to provide funding and class time for students to study languages.

It’s a dire situation for us as a nation so active on the world stage. It’s an embarrassment that we cannot communicate with our global neighbors unless they speak our language. The typical solution is to hire or recruit an intermediary, a translator, but how much meaning and dignity is lost through such primitive means of face-to-face communication?

What Did They Just Say?

How utterly imperialistic and arrogant on our part that we, a nation built on the sweat, blood, and tears of peoples from all over the world, have come to this weakened state. We are like children who can’t understand what the grow-ups are saying.

The power of many voices is what makes a democracy work with strength and vision. Does our democracy fit that model? If so, then how well? For how long?

Here in San Diego, a great port city and home to people from all the world’s continents, I embrace the conference with a sense of hope that I might hear the diverse voices of reason and promise.   I join my fellow teachers and speakers of many languages to advocate for our students, who are hungry to learn.

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