The Language Imperative
(Frequently Asked Questions)
Question 1: "Why did you write The Language Imperative?"
I wrote it for just one reason: Language gets no respect. Everybody can speak (or sign) and understand at least one language; we take that for granted. Using language is not like doing neurosurgery or playing concert piano, which are activities we consider special and awe-inspiring. Because everybody can use language, we say "it's only talk." That's dangerous.
Question 2 (followup): "Why? Why do you say it's dangerous?"
Because governments and educators and bureaucrats are now making decisions about our language use that will have grave consequences for our future and the future of this world -- and they're making them carelessly, on the basis of inadequate and distorted information, and for the wrong reasons. They're making language policy decisions on the basis of emotions and folklore and budgets, instead of on the basis of facts and common sense.
Question 3 (followup): "For example?"
Consider the recent involvement of the U.S. Congress in the "English Only" movement, an example that clearly illustrates the problem.
Congress started working on legislation that would make the use of any language except English illegal in public language environments in the U.S. Now, let's suppose Cajun French were made illegal in Louisiana schools. That would be a cultural tragedy, but it wouldn't mean the end of French, because French is spoken in many countries and has a huge literature. However, the U.S. has hundreds of Native American languages which are spoken nowhere else on this earth and have little if any written literature. If Tlingit were made illegal, and Tlingit children were required to use only English everywhere except at home, the Tlingit language would almost certainly die. And there is nowhere Tlingit children could go to study Tlingit; their language would be lost forever.
When this was explained to Congress, they revised the proposed legislation to make an exception for the Native American languages. But it shouldn't have been necessary to explain it; Congress should have thought of it without having to be prompted. This was basic and elementary information. All the Congresspersons had to do was stop and think. They didn't bother. It didn't occur to them that it was necessary. Unfortunately, this sort of carelessness and haste is typical of language policy decisions made in the U.S.
Question 4: "Your book's subtitle says that learning languages can "enrich your life and expand your mind." Obviously, learning anything can enrich your life and expand your mind! Why make a special case for learning languages?"
Learning a language is different from learning a sport or learning to play a musical instrument or learning physics. Learning a language is the only kind of learning that brings with it a new way of perceiving the world -- what's often called a new "worldview."
Question 5 (followup): "Isn't that just the old myth about how your language controls the way you think -- which everybody knows has been proved false?"
The idea that your language controls the way you think -- called linguistic determinism -- has certainly been proved false; no question about it. But that's only one version of the hypothesis. The other version -- linguistic relativity -- doesn't say human language controls human thinking; it just says that human language has interesting and significant effects on the way human beings perceive their world. That hasn't been proved false. On the contrary, there's a large body of evidence that it's true.
But that's not the most important point I wanted to make with the book. The thing that's really worrisome is that language policy decisions are not being made on the basis of whether people think that ideas like the language relativity hypothesis are true or false. If officials were saying things like, "The reason we've decided our kids absolutely must learn to play football but don't need to learn a foreign language is because we are convinced that the linguistic relativity hypothesis is false," that would be one thing. If they were saying "The reason we've decided to include algebra in the curriculum but not Russian is because we know that language-learning is no different from any other kind of learning, and algebra costs less to teach," that would be one thing. Statements like those would suggest that the officials had studied the question and read the literature and considered the evidence and come to a reasoned conclusion.That's not what's happening. The Language Imperative tries to make clear why that's not safe, and why it has to change.
Question 6: "Isn't the English Only movement really important, because otherwise English is in danger?"
No. Not only is English not in danger, English is taking over the world. Everywhere on Earth, people know that if they want to participate in 21st-century business and science and technology they have to learn English. They may resent that bitterly, and with very good reason -- nevertheless, they have to learn English. Thousands of human languages are in danger, but English absolutely isn't one of them.
Question 7: "Even if I thought that being bilingual or multilingual was a good thing, it's just too hard to learn foreign languages. It takes years and years, and costs a fortune, and is boring and difficult. Doesn't everybody know that?"
First: The idea that being multilingual means you have to have complete and equal mastery of all your languages is false. Suppose a person speaks and reads and writes English expertly, speaks enough Italian to get by in conversation but makes quite a few mistakes, and reads German easily but can't speak it at all. That person is multilingual. Learning other languages only partially is still valuable, and is much better than not learning them at all.
Second: Learning foreign languages gets harder as you get older. For kids, it's easy. The reason most monolingual Americans find it hard to learn another language is that our educational system waits until high school or college to offer foreign language courses. By that time the ability to learn languages easily is diminishing -- and students are well into adolescence, with all its other problems and its terrible self-consciousness.
Third: If you're interested in learning a foreign language, it doesn't have to be expensive. Not any more. Just go to your favorite search engine and ask for "free foreign language courses online"; you'll find them everywhere on the Net.
Copyright © 2001 by Suzette Haden Elgin