Saturday, April 9, 2011

Language Proficiency: A Matter of Life or Death?

By Maria Melendez
            Language knowledge is a skill that is subject to biases of space that on one hand claim it as only valuable as monolingual knowledge, while suggesting academic knowledge of multiple languages to be valuable for career advancement.  This ideology suggest that in the United States, knowledge of languages other than English are only valuable when removed from their cultural context and when taught as a supplemental knowledge to English.  In this way, native knowledge of foreign language is not recognized as a valuable form of knowledge.  This positioning of the United States as English-only, in comparison to other multilingual countries calls into question how natural it is for someone to be monolingual.
            We can see instances of this obsession with an English-only setting in institutions such as schools.  For example, as Gloria Anzaldua discusses in her piece book Borderlands/ La Frontera: How to Tame a Wild Tongue.  She discusses her experience as a bilingual Chicana in the public school system which demanded she work to get rid of her accent and become proficient in English through taking two speech classes.  This experience not only undervalued her language knowledge, but also suggested that her Chicano tongue was something that needed to be controlled and eradicated.  This idea of “linguistic terrorism”, can also refer to the struggle on the other side to maintain one’s Chicano identity via cultural expressions such as speaking Chicano Spanish.  It is a difficult balance to maintain and can result in lowered self-esteem because of the constant worry of how the tongue one chooses to use affects ones appearance and social standing. 
            It is fears such as this that lead native speakers of Spanish to try to control the way the world views them by hiding their accents.  This is supported by such language instruction programs as “Ingles sin Barreras” (English without barriers).  One of their commercials features a bilingual cat who protects its’ owners from a burglar by letting out an intimidating bark.  This is followed by the captions in English and Spanish “You too can learn another language.”  This portrayal of bilingualism is interesting because the dangerous scenario causes language to be positioned as a conduit to survival.  This commercial tells someone that if they want to be able to survive in this increasingly globalized world they had better learn to speak English. 
           In contrast, another interesting commercial is one for a language school named Avista. This commercial shows a similar scenario in which a cat is about to eat a fish but is scared off when the fish starts barking.  At the end of the commercial it says “learn another language.”  This is interesting because the captions for this advertisement for a school in Sweden are provided in English, indicating the strong connection Sweden has with English but on their site, we can see that they teach many languages including English, French, German, Japanese, Italian, etc.  The use of fear as a means of utilizing language knowledge in this foreign commercial suggests a connection with language knowledge and survival, but it holds different meaning in a country where multilingualism is the norm and one is not learning in order to assimilate to a one language mindset.  

            Surprisingly, another instance of this can be seen in a commercial for an international language school Berlitz.  Another life and death situation is presented here in which a person’s lack of knowledge of English causes an American boat to sink.  The ironic caption following this commercial is “language is life.”  This international school values itself for its’ global positioning through which globalization is enabled through a teaching of languages and business skills. 
            This positioning of language knowledge as a means of survival translates so well internationally that they are continually reproduced.  However, there are differences in what types of knowledge are being promoted.  Both the Avista and the Ingles Sin Barreras commercials don’t use the language as a means of conducting conversation but rather as a means of asserting ones position and achieving a sense of respect for oneself.   The course “Ingles Sin Barreras” positions learning English as the way to protect oneself from lingual isolation and assimilate to the English-only point of view of the United States.  In this way there is also an accommodation of English speakers by Spanish speakers, something which Anzaldua suggests contributes to a devaluing of Spanish.   In contrast, the language program Avista which is offered exclusively in Sweden and Berlitz which is offered internationally, emphasize the need to be able to accommodate languages other than English in order to achieve the goals of globalization.  The silencing of language knowledge that does not fit in with the English-only ideology in the United States has made learning English a necessity.  However, for those who are fortunate to be able to attain the cultural capital of knowledge of other languages to attain a global advantage possess valued knowledge.  

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