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A Single-Minded Tongue.

Scorpio Sphinx Monolingualism 6-30-05

By Freddie A. Bowles
Posted from Fayetteville, Arkansas

I ponder the underlying meaning of monolingualism, the import of living in a nation that insists upon remaining single-tongued and doggedly so — despite the heritage of many tongues and the future of many more.

To Learn another Language.

Is the pursuit of "English Only" simply another symptom of xenophobia?

If so, why does learning a second language pose such a threat to the "uni-tongued?"

We speak from both sides of our mouths anyway. We spout the beauty of diversity and rush to flavor every subject with the tenants of multiculturalism while ignoring the need to dress each graduate in the robe of a second language.

The Unwelcome Dilemma.

Census statistics for Washington County, Arkansas — the seat of my university — list 15,342 speakers of other languages, including Spanish, Hmong, Laotian, and Marshallese. In the culture of the single-tongued, the presence of so many other tongues presents an unwelcome dilemma. A common argument for the common folk goes like this: "How can we possibly learn any of the (X) number of languages spoken by our students? It's better for them to learn English."

I agree that it's better to learn English. All students should have the opportunity to learn the common language so that they can successfully navigate the demands of the culture. However, that does not preclude a student from learning other languages.

Too often, the naysayers miss the point of why one learns another language. It's not always for the language, nor is it always for the culture. It's for the discovery, the exploration, and the thrill of learning something extraordinary and unique.

Why would one want to collect postage stamps?

Why would one want to take a course in calligraphy?

Not out of necessity, I venture to guess, but out of curiosity. Hawkins (1982) proposes that "curiosity plays an integral role in the transition from concrete operations to formal operations" (p. 188). Hawkins bases his thesis on Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development.

Proficient and Competitive.

Why would a child not want to learn a foreign language if learning a foreign language were accepted and encouraged by the culture? Children are curious,and their curiosity should be facilitated. Research supports the positive aspects of learning another language: elementary students learning a foreign language perform better on standardized tests than their peers who do not have that benefit; pre-adolescents are more receptive to learning about people of other cultures; and, they are more likely to develop the levels of proficiency needed to compete globally in a multinational world (Met, 1991).

Why then are our public schools, especially the public policy makers, so reticent to introduce languages in the primary schools?

When we lived in Hungary, our son Marcus had the opportunity to study German in third grade and Italian in the fourth. English was also offered to his peers in primary school. Were the Hungarians threatened by the bugaboo of multilingualism? I don't think so.

When we learn a language, we learn a culture, and we satisfy our curiosity.

The End


Hawkins, V. J. (1982). Curiosity: A prerequisite for the attainment of formal operations? Education 103 (1), 100-103.

Met, M. (1991). Foreign language: On starting early. Educational Leadership 49 (1), 88-89.

NOTE: Washington County census information was obtained from the MLA Language Map Data Center (http://www.mla.org) on June 29, 2005.

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