Friday, October 28, 2011

X Is For Xenoglossophobia


If xenophobia means "fear of foreigners," xenoglossophobia means "fear of  foreign languages."   Like Lyme disease, xenoglossophobia is endemic in many parts of the U.S.

This fear causes many parents to want to protect their children from foreign language instruction, resulting in a dearth of public schools that offer bilingual immersion (only 440 in the entire country).  In some states, programs that immerse children in another language are actually banned, because, a recent NPR report states (http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=141584947 ), "a majority of voters don't think children can learn proper English and at the same time hold on to a foreign language and culture."

Xenoglossophobes hold firmly to this view, despite a wealth of evidence that becoming not only bilingual but literate in a foreign language is really good for kids' brains.  For example, according to the NPR story, most of the students of Miami's Coral Way elementary school, which has been offering a rigorous English/Spanish immersion program since 1963, come from low-income families, yet many of them are accepted into the city's best high schools.

I've often wondered what xenoglossophobes think happens in the hundreds of sites around the globe where the entire population is, for political or geographic reasons, bilingual.  To pick an example close to (my) home, in Catalonia most natives speak both Catalan and Spanish, the two official languages.  It is said--mostly by Catalans--that we are the most intelligent people in all of Spain.  If there is any truth in that, it's probably due to the enforced bilingualism.  But then the Basques (who speak their own utterly weird language, and Spanish) and the Galicians (who speak a language related to Portuguese, and Spanish) probably maintain their own superiority.

Then there is the Vall d'Aran, a tiny valley high in the Pyrenees, in the northwest corner of Catalonia.  Its 7,000 inhabitants have not one, not two, but three official languages.  The first is Aranes, a variant of Occitan;  the second is Catalan, because the valley is in Catalonia;  and the third is Spanish, because Catalonia is in Spain.  Xenoglossophobes would assume that the poor Aranese are barely able to walk, much less think, with this linguistic turmoil in their heads.  But not at all.  The Aranese are proud defenders of their endangered tongue, and insist that it be taught in their schools.  In addition, because in winter it snows really hard and the passes into Spain used to stay blocked for months, they all also speak French.

7 comments :

  1. It is distressing that the public school system I grew up didn't offer foreign languages until high school. What a missed opportunity.

    At the beginning of this post, I was thinking you were going a completely different direction—for example, making calls to help lines that are based in India. I know a lot of people who have so much trouble with foreign-accented English that they will do everything they can to avoid even that (eg, a woman who found her son's mother-in-law completely unintelligible).

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  2. Good point! I changed the first paragraph accordingly.

    Also, by the time my kids were in middle school, that certain school system did offer Spanish. But the teacher was so terrible that I wrangled permission from the principal for my daughters to take foreign languages at the college.

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  3. when my nephew was tiny, and my brother was fussing over which school he was going to send him to, i suggested one of the foreign language immersion schools. we have french, hmong, chinese, spanish and other languages. to which my brother said, "why would i want to do that?"

    yikes. my nephew remains monolingual.

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  4. An issue dear to my heart.

    I always used to feel terribly monolingual at international meetings. The Americans, Australians, and New Zealanders would wear headphones for the interpretation of the French/German speakers, along with all the Asians, but none of the Europeans. Almost no-one wore headphones for English, no matter what their native tongue.

    It is to my great regret that I am not fluent in any language, and that I dabble in too many. But it is also to my great regret that here in New Zealand, an isolated island, we don't promote language learning at all. (Well, except for immersion Maori schools, usually attended only by Maori children).

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  5. Mali, I think dabbling is great--it keeps the linguistic machine oiled.

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