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Could Learning Foreign Language Heal The Divides Of 2016?

18/01/2017 15:17
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That Dictionary.com chose 'xenophobia' as its word of the year actually came as a relief to me. I was worried they would pick 'Brexit', and my view on the word 'Brexit' is on record. (Spoiler alert: I don't like it.) But even though it could have been worse, the world has to be in a pretty terrible state for the internet's most straightforwardly-named online dictionary to pick a word with such awful connotations as most representative of 2016. Sadly, it was appropriate.

Xenophobic language played a big part in many of the darkest moments of 2016, from Trump's 'Build the wall' rally cry to Farage's 'Breaking point' poster. Though right wing leaders like Trump espouse desires to unite their countries, they only want to unite some in their countries against others. Since many of these 'Others'--be they Syrian refugees, European immigrants in the UK or Mexican immigrants in the US--speak different languages natively, it is worth trying to find ways to help truly make the world a better, more understanding place, and wider language education may be one of them.

Has anyone tried this out yet?

Sadiq Khan's mayoral victory over Zac Goldsmith's negative and racist campaign is one of the few bright spots on the 2016 political calendar. It seems like Khan knows this, as since taking office he has made it his personal mission to balance out the horrors of the wider political scene with progressive initiatives.

His plan to create 'a city for all Londoners' is far less empty than Donald Trump's supposed aspiration to be 'president for all Americans'. Even before Brexit, Khan pledged to make integration a core priority and he delivered on his word with an integration plan in October.

The plan makes many propositions which may help increase integration among Londoners, and though it acknowledges that over 300 languages are spoken in the city, it focuses on teaching them how to speak better English. This kind of makes sense, but it has a hint of confusing integration with assimilation. After all, the recent outbreak of xenophobia is stemming from English-speakers with little knowledge of second languages. (The UK was warned by the British Council in 2013 that the lack of Britons who speak foreign languages is "alarming".)

With this in mind, could teaching second languages to the English-speaking Brexit voters of the country be the best way to ensure 2017 is not a darker, grittier reboot of 2016?

Would better foreign language education really benefit 2017?

As I have already hinted, I think it would. And I didn't get this notion out of nowhere. Ulrika Tornberg wrote that the multicultural foreign language classroom is "an arena for democratic experiences" in the journal Utbildning & Demokrati ("Education & Democracy", if you don't happen to know Swedish). Edward J. Mullen in Profession that foreign language lessons have become a primary way to "sensitize students to the unique historical realities that have shaped United States culture." (This could apply to UK culture too.)

A study from the US National Library of Medicine (of all places) found that 93-94% of non-Hispanic white and black Americans speak only English. Writing for the esteemed Huffington Post Blog, Professor Amy Thompson of the University of South Florida conclusively concluded that learning foreign languages can increase people's cross-cultural understanding through opening them up to international social cues and helping them become global citizens and, therefore, less like the kind of people who will vote for a xenophobic demagogue.

How can we encourage this?

Technology could play a big role in helping cross-language communication. This month the UN began prototyping a mobile translation app to help "self-empowerment among refugees". This is a noble attempt to lessen xenophobia, but it once again places the onus on those who do not speak English to do something about this injustice, when it is the English-speakers that are the problem. As professional translators and prominent advocates of language learning, London Translations note, the attitude that non-English speakers should learn English is "deeply entrenched" in the UK.

The best solution, then, could be good old fashioned teaching. But this could be difficult. Funding for foreign language teaching departments was drastically decreased in 2013. In 2015 a report found that attracting students to choose to study languages after the age of 16 was "a challenge." Many speculate that then Education Secretary Michael Gove's infamous "English Baccalaureate" may have discouraged schools from teaching languages (but to say that this was part of Gove's plan to influence the Brexit vote would probably be giving him too much credit).

So it looks like the best way to heal 2016's divides may have to involve an increase in funding to a public service. But with a government in power that yells "cut!" more passionately than Steven Spielberg, this may be an unlikely scenario.

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