Thursday, January 20, 2011

Linguistic Imperialism

“An American tourist was being heckled by a French anti-war protester when he turned and asked the Frenchman:
‘Excuse me. Do you speak German?’
The Frenchman replied ‘No.’
The American looked him in the eyes and said ‘You're welcome.’”

Picture this scenario, my English-speaking friends.

In the part of town where you live (if you are middle-class), all the signs are in English, except for the numerals, which are Arabic numerals. Once you go to the new, rich part of town, all of the signs are in both English and Arabic. Nearly all shops have signs in English and Arabic over the door, and virtually all the products you buy have the product information written in both languages. The money you buy them with is inscribed with the denomination and the name of your country in Arabic.

Most of your clothes have Arabic writing on them. You think your clothes look nice, but you have no idea what the writing on them says.

All of the good movies are in Arabic. If you want to enjoy them, you have to watch them with English subtitles. Ditto with TV shows. Your favorite singers sing in Arabic. You don’t know what their lyrics mean.

Arabic is a required subject from the first grade onwards, even though you’ll likely never have a native speaker as a teacher, and you’ll rarely have the chance to use it in everyday life, outside the classroom, unless you’re one of the lucky few who gets a visa to the Middle East to work or study. If you want to go to university, you will have to pass an extremely difficult Arabic exam. You’re so eager for a friend who speaks Arabic as a first language that you constantly approach Arab tourists to see if they’d be interested in a language exchange.

When your parents were growing up, Farsi was the dominant world language, so they learned Farsi in school. Farsi is now virtually useless, except for speaking with the throngs of Iranian tourists who visit your country. Your parents probably know the Arabic alphabet and numerals, and will proudly show off this knowledge to anyone who asks, but the language itself is closed off to them. They strongly encourage you to study Arabic as hard as you can in school so you can make something of yourself, but for all you know, by the time you’re their age, Turkish will be the dominant language.

This is basically the situation the average Syrian finds himself in vis-à-vis English (and French).

Both English and French are mandatory in Syrian schools – French, because Syria was occupied by France for twenty years after World War I, and the Syrian bureaucracy is modeled on the French system, and English, because everyone has to learn English these days. It makes me feel lazy.

One of my students asked me the other day, “We study English and French in our schools. Why don’t you study Arabic in America?” I answered as honestly as I could: “Because everyone speaks English. Only Arabs speak Arabic.” I added: “It’s good. You’re smarter than us, because you have to learn three languages.”

Watching my students struggle through English and panic about their English exams, while I take my sweet time learning Arabic, has made the power imbalance between the West and the Arabs much more real to me. Not to belabor the obvious, but English, not Arabic, is the language of power in our time, and that’s not always easy on the ESL countries of the world, like Syria.

Back to the opening “joke”: I’ve used some variation of this theme many times in discussions about history and politics. “If it weren’t for (insert American political figure/event), we’d be speaking German/Russian/French right now!” (Because America would have been conquered by France, Germany or Russia.) The prospect of American schoolchildren learning Russian in school is supposed to be positively chilling.

So what does it mean that not only the French, but our adversaries in the Middle East, teach their kids English?

So what is my role in all this? I do my best to help them, I suppose. There’s nothing wrong or oppressive in learning a new language. It can, and should be, exciting and rewarding. I just wish my students were learning it under better circumstances.

1 comment:

  1. I see a case for wider use of Esperanto, a language which belongs top no particular ethnic group, to no nation or group of nations.

    I'm in favour of the learning of any language, but Esperanto has the virtue of being (almost) no one's mother tongue, and therefore contributes actively to the fight against linguistic imperialism.