Learning a language changes lives

Linguist Daniel Everett in the Amazon

As a further example of the growth in support for STEM fields in education (science, technology, engineering, math) in the US, and the concurrent drop in support for the humanities, the state legislature in my state of Virginia this year changed the requirements for the academic diploma from high school to enable computer science to substitute for foreign language study. This aligns with the perception that employment opportunities of the future will call for skills in coding, not in speaking another language. In the US, the trend in education emphasizing vocational training is often linked to the economic downturn following the 2008 financial collapse. The result has been a decade of gradual decline in enrollment in foreign language classes at high schools and universities. As a consequence, fewer US students are learning a second language (at least formally in school). This has unfortunate consequences both individually and society-wide. On a personal level, students lose the opportunity to develop a new identity, by experiencing the world through the different cultural lens that a second language provides. That has social ramifications, as monolinguals tend to cling to the one culture they know and tend therefore to be less receptive to other ways of life.

These thoughts were prompted through a recent piece by linguistic anthropologist Daniel Everett, “Learning another language should be compulsory in every school“. Everett is Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University in Massachusetts. He is best known for his work as a field linguist in the Amazon, learning Pirahã, which he described in the wonderful book, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle (2008). He’s also famous for his spat with the most famous linguist on earth, Noam Chomsky over the concept of universal grammar, aspects of which Everett found to be contradicted by characteristics of the Pirahã language.

In his essay, Everett, talks about his own language experiences, growing up in California, along the border with Mexico, learning Spanish so well that he joined a Mexican rock ’n’ roll band based in Tijuana:

Learning Spanish changed my life. It taught me more about English, it gave me friendships and connections and respect I never could have otherwise received. Just as learning Portuguese, Pirahã and smatterings of other Amazonian languages continued to transform me during my entire life. Now, after spending most of my adult life in higher education, researching languages, cultures and cognition, I have become more convinced than ever that nothing teaches us about the world and how to think more effectively better than learning new languages. That is why I advocate for fluency in foreign languages. But for this to happen, language-learning needs to make a comeback as a requirement of both primary and secondary education in the United States. Learning another language benefits each learner in at least three ways – pragmatically, neurologically and culturally.

He describes the practical and potential employment advantages of knowing another language. Then he provides an example of how learning a language provides insight into how other cultures see the world:

Beyond the pragmatic benefits to learning languages are humanistic, cultural benefits. It is precisely because not all languages are the same that learning them can expand our understanding of the world. Every language has evolved in a specific geocultural niche, and thus has different ways of talking and codifying the world. But this is precisely why learning them is so beneficial. Take, for example:

John borrowed $10,000 from the bank of Mom and Dad to pay down his college loan.

The Pirahã language of the Amazon has no words for numbers or for borrow, dollars, bank, mom, dad, college or loan. So this sentence cannot be translated into Pirahã (it could be if their culture were to change and they learned about the modern economy). On the other hand, consider a common Pirahã phrase:

Piibooxio xigahapaati.

This phrase means ‘go upriver’ in Pirahã. Innocuous enough, until you realise that Pirahãs use this phrase instead of the less precise ‘turn left’ or ‘turn right’ (which depends on where the speaker and hearer are facing) – this is uttered from deep within the jungle or at the river’s edge – all Pirahãs carry a mental map of tens of thousands of acres of jungle in their heads, and thus know where all points of reference are, whether a river or a specific region of the jungle. They use absolute directions, not relative directions as, say, the average American does when he says ‘turn left’ (vs the absolute direction, ‘turn north’). So to use Pirahã phrases intelligibly requires learning about their local geography.

Everett points to the broadening horizons language learning brings with it:

Language-learning induces reflection both on how we ourselves think and communicate, and how others think. Thus it teaches culture implicitly. Languages should be at the very heart of our educational systems. Learning languages disables our easy and common habit of glossing over differences and failing to understand others and ourselves. You cannot achieve fluency in another language without learning its speakers’ perspectives on the world, and thereby enriching your own conceptual arsenal.

Everett ends with a reference to a video presentation of the method he uses in learning indigenous languages, while not having a common language. In the video, Everett uses Pirahã in eliciting language lessons from a woman speaking Hmong. After the demonstration, Everett describes some of the fascinating aspects of Pirahã, including the variety of communication forms including humming, whistle speech, musical speech, and yelling. Speech acts are radically different from Western norms, with no greeting or leave taking rituals. Men and women speaking Pirahã use different consonants.

The experience of speaking Pirahã involves a very different human experience than speaking English. This is true of all languages, ways of life are embedded deeply in how languages work. Learning to program computers is a highly valuable skill, especially in today’s world, but it shouldn’t substitute for the invaluable human experience of learning a second language.

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