Multilingual Mondays: But At What Cost?

One of my summer school classes is called Foundations of TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). I’ve really enjoyed it so far! One of my favorite parts is that we get to try out different language teaching strategies on our fellow students. We just experiment and see what works and what doesn’t.

Last week we read and discussed a book called English Teaching as Christian Mission by Donald B. Snow. Part of our discussion of this book was a consideration of the morality of teaching English in foreign countries. To what extent does teaching English disenfranchise native languages? On the other hand, to what extent does the activity of teaching English constitute a true service to students who need or desire to learn English for personal or professional purposes? If the geopolitical reality is that English is (at least for the moment) the dominant international language, isn’t it the right thing to do to enable students to excel and prosper in the current global reality? Conversely, with many languages dying out for lack of native speakers, must English teachers take some responsibility for enlarging the spread of English, at the expense of native languages?

Interesting questions, right? As part of the discussion the teacher showed us this video from the Oregonian: http://www.oregonlive.com/special/index.ssf/2009/01/sounds_of_oregon.html .

It was inspiring, certainly, to see young people learning the languages of their heritage and of their relatives. It was cool, also, to hear the languages being spoken. But the thing that the most stuck out to me in watching the move is the number of tribes present on the reservation. High school teachers on the reservation are teaching Walla Walla, Umatilla and Nez Perce, in addition to other native languages. In Pre-Columbian periods, these tribes wouldn’t have mixed, let alone taught each other their languages.

This mush pot style of  “Indian Management” was also practiced by the Bureau of Indian Affairs on the Great Plains in the second half of the 1800’s. Comanches were housed with Kiowas, Navajos with Apaches, Kiowas with Pawnee. Whether these tribes were allies or enemies didn’t matter, whether their languages were related or not didn’t matter, Indians were Indians and all Indians lived together. I don’t believe that the presence of multiple tribes on the Umatilla reservation today reflects that attitude currently but it does reflect the history of Anglo-Indian interaction in the US: lands were taken, cultural distinctions were ignored or erased and Anglo interests were served. Thus, we end up with multiple tribes on the same reservation, all working hard to keep their distinct languages alive, with a couple dozen student-speakers each.

If I were to travel abroad to teach English, I think I can feel good about the service I would provide. If individuals want to learn English to better their job chances or communicate in English-speaking societies, I think they should be able to and they deserve good teacher to help them. I will have to be honest with myself, though, that I am, for better or for worse, part of geopolitical linguistic shift that will result in the extinction of a number of native languages.

(I wonder if Latin tutors felt the same way in 300 AD?)

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