Michael Heim on the importance of learning languages.
CWL: I think you’re very unusual in that you’re an American who knows a lot of languages and I’m wondering if you have thought a lot about how language is taught in schools, at a university level, how you might characterize that and what you think ought to be done.
Michael Heim: I don’t think that Americans teach languages any worse than anybody else, but learning a language is not valued here and so the people who teach here are at a disadvantage. They are given a subject to teach that most people don’t feel is important. The students either know this literally or somehow can feel it and that makes teaching a language much more difficult than teaching math, let’s say, or teaching English. You know what it is you’re going to use those subjects for, but you don’t know why you need to know a language. We haven’t done a good job of explaining to the public what it is that you gain by learning a language. That’s something I would like to see addressed. What I think you learn, besides of course learning the language, is what language is. You learn to appreciate language, you learn to use your own language better not necessarily because you’ve learned grammar rules in another language and therefore you understand your own grammar better, but because you know what other people are going through when they learn a language you know, what it takes to put a language together. You’re going to be more sensitive to words as individual units and to putting those words together to make sense. We think that we don’t, we Americans, think that we don’t need to know a language because we can go to Starbucks anywhere and order coffee and you just say coffee and you get coffee and that’s true, but coffee is not “object” or “love” or “book.” All those words aren’t going to be so easy and if you want to go beyond that very, very, very basic stage you do need to know other languages. You need to know them if you’re a businessman, maybe not because you’re going to talk to the people you’re dealing with in whatever language they have to speak, but because you want to find out what’s going on in the country and you can’t do that without the language. You can’t simply think that the rest of the world is going to do everything for you in English. There will be newspapers; there will be conversations that you will be excluded from if you don’t know the language.
CWL: I guess maybe that anticipates the answer to another question I’d like to ask, which is if you are someone who lives in this country, who does not travel and who is in the field of lets say English literature or the sciences, why should you be interested in learning another language?
Heim: There’s a real misconception in this country, again it’s a cultural thing, that learning one language keeps you from speaking English well, that learning another language is going to harm your English. Nothing could be further from the truth. Everything that I’ve been saying so far says exactly the opposite, that it could only help you because it makes you more aware of what language is and that’s something that we have to get out to the public, and there are experiments, there are essays, there are books written about this, so we have the evidence, there’s no doubt about it. Nobody has ever really controverted it on a scholarly level, but the popular idea is “oh this language is going to interfere with English so let’s keep our English pure.” Our English is plenty pure; we don’t have to worry about that.
CWL: I guess my last question, maybe you’ve already answered it, but let’s just say that there were some kind of cabinet level position on language and you were appointed to be that person, though I think you’ve already talked about some of the things you would do, but what would you do, what would your agenda be?
Heim: There’s a wonderful French expression, “If I were king,” “Si j’etait roi.” If I were a king what I would do is to mandate language teaching from the very start, in schools, in other words from kindergarten on, and as you can tell from what I’ve said before, I don’t think that the choice of language is the most important thing. I think learning another language is important and the choice of language can come from any number of factors, where you happen to being living, the ethnic makeup of your community, the world situation and so on. I think that we should treat it as importantly as we treat everything else. If we spent as much time learning a foreign language as we spend on spelling, we would all be bilingual. There isn’t any reason why the Europeans can learn languages and we can’t. There is no genetic specialty in the Dutch that allows them to learn a language and prevents us from learning a language. It is something social that we have learned, that we Americans are not supposed to be able to do it, we don’t need to do it, and I think that’s balderdash. We really need to start doing it and it can be done, actually quite easily, if it’s started early enough and it’s done correctly. I think we know how to do it, and I think we know how to do it well, but it takes a little bit of money. Now let’s take that situation in Los Angeles, we know that there are lots of Spanish speakers here. They tend to live in the same area, that’s natural; all heritage groups tend to live in the same area. Ok, they go to school, they’ve spoken Spanish at home, they come to the first grade and there’s this big woman standing in front of the room who speaks to them in gibberish because they’ve never heard this before or they’ve seen it on television but nobody’s ever spoken to them in that language. And what do you do? You freeze, and if everybody in the class is speaking Spanish and that person is speaking English it’s going to take a long time for that English to come through, but if the kids before they get to school are put together with other kids, not that big woman in the front, but with other kids who speak English, and are basically told to play with them, they will learn English. This is an interesting phenomenon that again people don’t realize, but it has been proven 100%. You don’t learn a language, all other things being equal, from your parents; you learn it from your peers. Why? Think about what I am saying now, is a two year old going to be able to repeat or understand what I’m saying now? No, but is a two year old going to be able to understand when the three year old says, “throw the ball?” Yes, that they can understand. That’s why kids learn to speak a foreign language without an accent, because they don’t hear their parents, in this country as you say everybody comes from somewhere else. If you learn the language from your parents, it would mean that everybody would have a foreign accent because you would have a language that you got from your parents whereas they learn from the kids in the street and the kids in the street don’t have an accent because they’ve learned from one another and kids at that age don’t have an accent. So, what we need to do is to get all the kids who don’t speak English when they get to school, we need to get them the year before hand or two years before hand and put them in pre-schools, and it costs a little money. We will have to bus them so that you don’t have all speakers of one language together. But, when you don’t have speakers of one language together, the main language is going to be the language that they speak and that main language is going to be English, in this county. There isn’t any doubt about it because the kids will have older brothers and sisters who know English, they’ll know a few words of English. They’ll see that they can speak to the kid who speaks Vietnamese and the kid who speaks Korean and the kid who speaks any language coming from anywhere. They’ll all be able to communicate in English and very soon they’ll all be speaking English and they will learn from one another. They’ll learn “throw me the ball” if they want to play ball. They’ll learn “give me the doll” if they want the doll. That’s the way you learn, you don’t learn by the teacher standing in front of them and say “now class open your books.”
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Published: Wednesday, January 28, 2009
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