167. Secret Codes

A language is a code. And if you don’t know the language, it’s a secret code. As you probably learned when you were a kid, it’s not nice to tell secrets. I thought about starting this article by using the term “foreign languages,” but that’s a vague term that I don’t find very useful. In one way, no language is foreign, and in another way, they all are. It’s all a matter of perspective. Huck Finn was confused about French. He wondered why people used the “wrong” words (the French words) for things. He thought they’d learn and use the “right” words (the English words) if they really wanted people to understand them.
Some people think the world would be better off if we all spoke the same language. I’m not sure about that. Maybe it would help. But there have been wars fought between peoples who had a language in common. There’s more to understanding than speaking the same language. In fact, we sometimes use the word “language” to mean something different from the meaning that refers to English, Portugese, Swahili, etc. Sometimes when we say two people “don’t speak the same language,” we mean they may both speak English, but they don’t understand each other. There’s a natural tendency, especially among monolingual children, to see language the way Huck Finn saw it. If someone doesn’t speak the language you speak, or speaks it with difficulty, perhaps with an accent, either the person isn’t really trying, or the person isn’t very smart. You’re not impressed that they speak some foreign language. Big deal. If they really had their acts together, they’d learn how to speak the way “regular people” speak. A neighbor of mine is from Belorus, and is, as you’d expect, fluent in her native language. She also knows Russian, French, and English. Because she lives in a primarily English-speaking country now, she wants to learn to speak English in a way that will enable her to be accepted at colleges, get jobs, etc. She wants to lose her accent and refine her grammar and word
usage. I’m helping her improve her English. “Knowing” Russian helps, but what helps even more is learning from her that I speak Russian with an American accent. Some of the sounds I’m so proud of being able to produce are “okay.” but do give me away as an American. And it’s easier to teach her when I more fully realize how big the challenge is. Children ought to learn, at some point, that though they may be articulate and fluent, most people consider their language foreign. Maybe that knowledge will make them more tolerant. Ethnocentrism is natural; in many cultures, the word for “human being” is the same as the word for a member of that culture. But just as we ask children to open their minds to math, art, and science, I think we should be making sure they understand something about the codes they’re not used to.

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