The Power of Language Learning

“I feel that American as against British English, and English of any major dialect as against Russian, and both languages as against the Tarascan language of Mexico constitute different worlds. I note that it is persons with experience of foreign languages and poetry who feel most acutely that a natural language is a different way not only of talking but of thinking and imaging and of emotional life.”
~Paul Friedrich, The Language Parallax, Kindle Locations 356-359

“Marketing professor David Luna has performed tests on people who are not just bilingual but bicultural—those who have internalized two different cultures—which lend support to this model of cultural frames. Working with people immersed equally in both American and Hispanic cultures, he examined their responses to various advertisements and newspaper articles in both languages and compared them to those of bilinguals who were only immersed in one culture. He reports that biculturals, more than monoculturals, would feel “like a different person” when they spoke different languages, and they accessed different mental frames depending on the cultural context, resulting in shifts in their sense of self.”
~Jeremy Lent, The Patterning Instinct, p. 204

Like Daniel Everett, the much earlier Roger Williams went to convert the natives, and in the process he was deconverted, at least to the extent of losing his righteous Puritanism. And as with Everett, he studied the native languages and wrote about them. That could be an example of the power of linguistic relativity, in that studying another language could cause you to enter another cultural worldview.

On a related note, Baruch Spinoza did textual analysis, Thomas Paine did Biblical criticism, Friedrich Nietzsche did philology, etc. It makes one wonder how studying language might help shape the thought and redirect the life trajectory of certain thinkers. Many radicals have a history of studying languages and texts. The same thing is seen with a high number of academics, ministers, and apologists turning into agnostics and atheists through an originally faithful study of the Bible (e.g., Robert M. Price).

There is a trickster quality to language, something observed by many others. To closely study language and the products of language is to risk having one’s mind unsettled and then to risk being scorned by those locked into a single linguistic worldview. What Everett found was that, in trying to translate the Bible for the Piraha, he was destabilizing his place within the religious order and also, in discovering the lack of linguistic recursion, destabilizing his place within the academic order. Both organized religion and organized academia are institutions of power that maintain the proper order. For the same reason of power, governments have often enforced a single language for the entire population, as thought control and social control, as enforced assimilation.

Monolingualism goes hand in hand with monoculturalism. And so simply learning a foreign language can be one of the most radical acts that one can commit. The more foreign the language, the more radical the effect. But sometimes simply scrutinizing one’s own native language can shift one’s mind, a possible connection between writing and a greater potential for independent thought. Then again, knowledge of language can also make one a better rhetorician and propagandist. Language as trickster phenomenon does have two faces.

* * *

The Bilingual Mind
by Aneta Pavlenko
pp. 25-27

Like Humboldt and Sapir before him, Whorf, too, believed in the plasticity of the human mind and its ability to go beyond the categories of the mother tongue. This belief permeates the poignant plea for ‘multilingual awareness’ made by the terminally ill Whorf to the world on the brink of World War II:

I believe that those who envision a world speaking only one tongue, whether English, German, Russian, or any other, hold a misguided ideal and would do the evolution of the human mind the greatest disservice. Western culture has made, through language, a provisional analysis of reality and, without correctives, holds resolutely to that analysis as final. The only correctives lie in all those other tongues which by aeons of independent evolution have arrived at different, but equally logical, provisional analyses. ([ 1941b ] 2012 : 313)

Whorf’s arguments fell on deaf ears, because they were made in a climate significantly less tolerant of linguistic diversity than that of the late imperial Russia and the USSR. In the nineteenth century, large immigrant communities in the US (in particular German speakers) enjoyed access to native-language education, press and theater. The situation began to change during the period often termed the Great Migration (1880–1924), when approximately 24 million new immigrants entered the country (US Bureau of the Census, 1975 ). The overwhelming influx raised concerns about national unity and the capacity of American society to assimilate such a large body of newcomers. In 1917, when the US entered the European conflict declaring war on Germany, the anti-immigrant sentiments found an outlet in a strong movement against ‘the language of the enemy’: German books were removed from libraries and destroyed, German-language theaters and publications closed, and German speakers became subject to intimidation and threats (Luebke , 1980 ; Pavlenko, 2002a ; Wiley , 1998 ).

The advisability of German – and other foreign-language-medium – instruction also came into question, in a truly Humboldtian fashion that linked the learning of foreign languages with adoption of ‘foreign’ worldviews (e.g., Gordy , 1918 ). The National Education Association went as far as to declare “the practice of giving instruction … in a foreign tongue to be un-American and unpatriotic” (Fitz-Gerald , 1918 : 62). And while many prominent intellectuals stood up in defense of foreign languages (e.g., Barnes, 1918 ), bilingual education gave way and so did foreign-language instruction at the elementary level, where children were judged most vulnerable and where 80% of them ended their education. Between 1917 and 1922, Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and South Dakota issued laws that prohibited foreign-language instruction in grades I through VIII, while Wisconsin and Minnesota restricted it to one hour a day. Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio made the teaching of German illegal at the elementary level, and so did several cities with large German-speaking populations, including Baltimore, New York City, and Philadelphia (Luebke , 1980 ; Pavlenko, 2002a ). The double standard that made bilingualism an upper-class privilege reserved for ‘real’ Americans is seen in the address given by Vassar College professor Marian Whitney at the Modern Language Teachers conference in 1918:

In so far as teaching foreign languages in our elementary schools has been a means of keeping a child of foreign birth in the language and ideals of his family and tradition, I think it a bad thing; but to teach young Americans French, German, or Spanish at an age when their oral and verbal memory is keen and when languages come easily, is a good thing. (Whitney , 1918 : 11–12)

The intolerance reached its apogee in Roosevelt ’s 1919 address to the American Defense Society that equated English monolingualism with loyalty to the US:

We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boardinghouse; and we have room for but one sole loyalty, and that is the loyalty to the American people. (cited in Brumberg, 1986 : 7)

Reprinted in countless Board of Education brochures, this speech fortified the pressure not only to learn English but to abandon native languages. This pressure precipitated a rapid shift to English in many immigrant communities, further facilitated by the drastic reduction in immigrant influx, due to the quotas established by the 1924 National Origins Act (Pavlenko , 2002a ). Assimilation efforts also extended to Native Americans, who were no longer treated as sovereign nations – many Native American children were sent to English-language boarding schools, where they lost their native languages (Morgan, 2009 ; Spack , 2002 ).

The endangerment of Native American languages was of great concern to Boas, Sapir , and Whorf , yet their support for linguistic diversity and multilingualism never translated into reforms and policies: in the world outside of academia, Americanization laws and efforts were making US citizenry unapologetically monolingual and the disappearance of ‘multilingual awareness’ was applauded by academics who viewed bilingualism as detrimental to children’s cognitive, linguistic and emotional development (Anastasi & Cordova , 1953 ; Bossard, 1945 ; Smith, 1931 , 1939 ; Spoerl , 1943 ; Yoshioka , 1929 ; for discussion, see Weinreich, 1953 : 115–118). It was only in the 1950s that Arsenian ( 1945 ), Haugen ( 1953 , 1956 ), and Weinreich ( 1953 ) succeeded in promoting a more positive view of bilingualism, yet part of their success resided in the fact that by then bilingualism no longer mattered – it was regarded, as we will see, as an “unusual” characteristic, pervasive at the margins but hardly relevant for the society at large.

In the USSR, on the other hand, linguists’ romantic belief in linguistic rights and politicians’ desire to institutionalize nations as fundamental constituents of the state gave rise to the policy of korenizatsia [nativization] and a unique educational system that promoted the development of multilingual competence (Hirsch, 2005 ; Pavlenko , 2013 ; Smith , 1998 ). It is a little-known and under-appreciated irony that throughout the twentieth century, language policies in the ‘totalitarian’ Soviet Union were significantly more liberal – even during the period of the so-called ‘russification’– than those in the ‘liberal’ United States.

2 thoughts on “The Power of Language Learning

  1. I wonder what bilingualism looks like across ideology. In Canada, conservatives seem to be known as much more generally English-only, for some reason. I couldn’t find any research work on the subject. I suspect the link is quite strong between the two, but good work on the subject would be enlightening.

    • I’m sure conservatives are more likely to be English-only in the US as well. The only groups that tend to be bilingual in the US are immigrants and they also tend to vote Democratic, if that is what one means by liberal.

      I decided to add a passage at the end of the post. It is from a book I was looking at the other day. It compares the US to Soviet Russia, the latter actually having had a more liberal policy toward multilingualism. I don’t know why that was the case.

      That book, The Bilingual Mind, seems interesting. I don’t know if it is enlightening, as I haven’t yet read much of it. He doesn’t bring up Canada too often, but here is one place where he does (p. 250):

      “These effects were replicated with linguistic primes: Chinese–English bilinguals adopted more collectivistic frames in Chinese and more individualistic frames in English (Chen & Bond , 2010 ; Ralston et al., 1995 ; Ross et al., 2002 ; Trafimow et al., 1997 ; Wang et al., 2010 ). To give but one example, Ross and associates ( 2002 ) compared self-descriptions and questionnaire responses of Chinese–English bilinguals born in China and residing in Canada to responses provided by Canadian-born participants of European and Chinese descent. The results showed that bilinguals responding in Chinese made more collectivistic self-statements and displayed higher agreement with Chinese beliefs and values than all other participant groups. They also reported significantly lower self-esteem than the other participants and were equally likely to make favorable and unfavorable self-statements and to report negative and positive moods. Bilinguals writing in English patterned with native speakers of English in making more favorable self-statements and reporting higher self-esteem and more positive moods.”

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