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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Noah (and Herder) on Obama on Language

So yesterday, Noah Millman--who has been, at the least, intrigued by Senator Obama's presidential campaign, as I think any intelligent person ought to be--came out swinging hard against a brief comment the man made during a campaign stop in Georgia. The substance of his comment was, simply, that more Americans should strive to learn another language, and in particular we should, as a nation (and as parents and teachers), try to ensure that our children are learning some Spanish. You can listen to his comments here (that seems to be how most people are learning about them), but here's the actual transcript:

I don't understand when people are going around saying, "We need to have English only." They want to pass a law "We want English only." Now I agree that immigrants should learn English. I agree with that. But understand this. Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English. They'll learn English. You need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about how can your child become bilingual. We should have every child speaking more than one language. It's embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe and all we can say is merci beaucoup, right?

For a variety of reasons--a couple of which I respect, but others of which I just find silly--this comment really ticked Noah off, and he unloads on Obama. Well, allow me to unload back:

Noah says--
We do not want a formally bilingual America. We don't! I can think of only one clearly successful multilingual polity--Switzerland--and it's an exceptional society in almost every way. Bilingualism is an inescapable historical fact in Canada and Belgium, and as such it is appropriately a political fact as well, but any argument that it has been beneficial would be very strained. And there are plenty of countries with distinct linguistic minorities--Spain, Israel, China--and others with no real linguistic majority--India, South Africa--but in neither case would anyone say that these are optimal situations. The optimal situation from almost every perspective is to have a national language that everyone acknowledges and speaks.

I completely agree with the Noah here...but then I also completely agree with the senator? How is that possible? Well, for one, as a couple of commenters on Noah's post have pointed out, what Noah is attacking in his first point isn't anything Obama actually said. He wasn't calling for a "formally bilingual America" in this little riff; all he was doing was 1) condemning what he sees as a kind of paranoia behind the "English Only" movement, and 2) making a jab at a kind of stereotypical American parochialism, in that we don't seem to be too concerned about our lack of knowledge of other languages. Pretty straightforward, yes?

But of course, Noah is a thoughtful man, and this first point of his--the most important one in his whole post--deserves a thoughtful response. And my response would be two-fold:

First, I agree agree with him: if one has a choice, bilingualism is to be avoided. I say this for pedagogical reasons (more about that below), for political reasons (having to do with the civic element which comes along with any proper education, an accommodation and teaching about civic life in America--or any nation--which will be inevitably complicated and perhaps even compromised if it has to be conducted in more languages that one shared one), and for philosophical reasons as well. I'm both a student and an admirer of J.G. Herder, and he of course is well known as advocating a kind of cultural--or more particularly a linguistic nationalism, and position I find intellectually important and not a little morally persuasive. I've written about this professionally a couple of times and on both this and my old blog before as well--in that latter case, specifically addressing and somewhat defending Samuel Huntington's concerns about the "Hispanic challange" to America's national identity, particularly in regards to his belief that, because of the particular historical products of this country's "Anglo-Protestant" culture, Mexicans and other immigrants to the U.S. "will share in [the American] dream and...society only if they dream in English."

So--am I changing my mind? Not really, I don't think. My defense of Huntington's ideas was more an attack on some clumsy attacks upon it, coming from the likes of David Brooks and others. There is a weakness and a xenophobia present in his arguments (and even more so in many of the "English Only" claims which Obama was mocking), but dismissing his concerns as irrelevant and outdated in our globalized, cosmopolitan, supposedly post-national world doesn't do the trick. As I wrote then: "The English language spoken in the U.S. is by no means the sum total of American identity, but it is a vital part of it. America is a whole lot more than an 'Anglo-Protestant' culture, but that doesn't mean that specific heritage can be completely dispensed in understanding how it is that our country perpetuates itself either. Assimilation, in one sense or another, is a real issue, and a hard one, and easily disregarded by universalists of one stripe or another on both sides. When folks like Brooks say that being an American just boils down to having 'a common conception of the future,' he's dealing in platitudes that make it easier for xenophobes to justify themselves. And when folks like Huntington impose rigid civilizational lines on complicated questions like, for example, language assimilation, it makes it easier for liberals to think that 'culture' needn't mean anything at all."

Herder is, I think, a pretty good guide to these complicated matters, and while I'd hardly take it upon myself to give reading advice to brilliant guy like Noah, I would suggest that he give his writings a chance; there's a lot to be gained from this late 18th-century cleric, critic and philosopher's ideas, especially regarding language. Forgive me for quoting myself again, this time from one of the articles linked to up above:

[A] Herderian reading of the relationship between language and nationality is "conservative" in some ways:...it assumes that national communities have an enduring place in the moral structure of the world and argues that said nations should acknowledge the necessity of maintaining a dominant linguistic field, for the sake of perpetuating the meaning which a people may culturally realize within their group. Herder's communitarian vision thus suggests that a choice-driven policy of bi- or multilingualism is greatly limited in its ability to transform or shape the realization of a people's affective identity, because it ignores or distorts the context by which we are aesthetically brought into a sense of belonging....But Herder's understanding of language and identity would also seem to have "progressive" elements as well, in that it denies the value of specific linguistic forms apart from their always fluid use and adaptation by the people who discover the content of their identity through them....[T]he idea that changes in language will necessarily lead to the "demoralization" of a nation is far removed from Herder's philosophy. ["J.G. Herder on Language and the Metaphysics of National Community," The Review of Politics, Spring 2003, 255-256]

For all his ferocious and philosophically informed defense of the German Volk and their way of speaking, for all his contempt for cosmopolitanism, Herder never saw any good reason not to be acquainted with other languages...in fact, he thought a fuller appreciation of one's own tradition would only come through a greater awareness of how other traditions are articulated. He made this pretty clear in his early work, On Diligence in Several Learned Languages: "How little progress we would have made, were each nation to strive for learnedness by itself, confined within the narrow sphere of [its] language?" This isn't linguistic imperialism; this is saying that languages deserve respect, and that means teaching one's own properly, as way of making possible the sort of growth and judgment which comes from learning other languages as well. And if time and circumstances make certain kinds of growth and judgment more important to and incumbent upon responsible citizens than others, than plainly, that's where one's efforts ought to go. Which leads me to...

Second, we Americans probably are not going to have too much of choice in these matters. A--if not wholly, than at least significantly--bilingual America is on its way; in some parts of the country, its already here. The Spanish language (and here feel free to blame and/or praise immigration or demographics or any combination thereof you please) is shaping, bit by bit, large swaths of America's popular culture, dress, religion, diet, and more; and that influence will likely only increase further in the years and decades to come. The American southwest and Florida are not really Quebec yet, and for historical and political reasons almost certainly never will be...but so long as we're talking about education and the value of bilingualism and the long-term here, we might as well be cognizant of the significantly Hispanicized America which is on our horizon. In the 18th and 19th centuries, there were German nationalists who thought that the Dutch republic was a scandal that never should have been allowed to get out of the German cultural orbit; Herder thought such folks were ridiculous: there was a new Volk out there, one to engage and learn from. America ought to do the same with the Spanish-speakers among us and south of us just the same. That's not an invitation to "a formally bilingual America"; that's treating the cultures around us, and the need America has, as an English-speaking country, comprehend what they are and what they can reflect back to us, with respect.

Okay, that was good enough for a post all on its own. Let me try to run through the rest of Noah's post quickly:

Noah says--
English-speaking peoples don’t learn a second language. It’s a weird but true fact.

Well, actually he's probably correct here. Because of English's global dominance in areas of mass (especially electronic) communication, high finance, and scientific exchanges, there are very few cost-beneficial reasons for English-speakers to branch out. And perhaps there are deeper linguistic/cultural factors in play as well. But how is that a normative claim? A practical warning not to indulge in pie-in-the-sky hopes that we'll all become linguistic cosmopolitans overnight--Herderian and communitarian that I am, I wouldn't want that anyway--but a reason not to encourage the study of foreign languages? Doesn't seem to cut it to me.

Noah says--
Spanish is good for basically two things. First, communicating with immigrant neighbors, employees or clients. Unless we are aiming to create a permanently bilingual America--and we shouldn’t be--there is no reason for our strapped primary schools to be paying for this; you can get a perfectly good working knowledge of everyday Spanish without studying it in school....Second, learning any second language is good for expanding one’s cultural and intellectual horizons, gaining perspective on how one’s own primary language shapes one’s thoughts, and so forth. But this is, relatively speaking, a luxury good. For your average student, it’s much more important that they understand the concept of compound interest than that they learn Spanish.

All well and good (though I think more than a few students of Spanish and/or aficionados of one or another aspect of Mexican culture might want to question how he frames the "usefulness" of Spanish); I suppose I can't fundamentally disagree with any of this. But even allowing what Noah says in his first claim, he's still not really disputing the "ought" in Obama's rather prosaic and offhand statement; he's now merely detailing the marginal costs and benefits of doing so. Which are certainly worth looking at--Obama is, of course, speaking as a potential president, and hence a setter of priorities and budgets--but such side concerns are not particularly on his real point.

Noah says--
Whatever one might think of it in theory, in practice, bilingual education is a massive boondoggle that hurts immigrant children.

I agree: making certain people have, insofar as possible, a shared and sufficient grounding in a single language before--or concomitant to--branching out into other areas of study is crucial. Throwing kids into a school system where basic math is taught in this classroom in Spanish as part of an "immersion" is moronic. But urging everyone to learn a foreign language--in the context of thus discussion presumably, though I guess not necessarily, Spanish--isn't the same as bilingual education: it just means getting the foreign language there in the curriculum.

Noah says--
[W]hat does this have to do with being President of the United States? Why is this wish even remotely on the list? If I thought this was some indication that Obama thought tougher education of the American elite needed to be a higher Federal priority, that would be an interesting development. But it isn’t. It’s just intellectual luftmenschtichkeit.

Oh sure, Noah, condemn the man for encouraging the study of foreign languages, and finish it off by displaying some of your erudite-and-perhaps-completely-unique German/Hebrew/Yiddish/whatever.


John B. said...

My initial response to this is pretty much embodied in your final comment--that and your response to Millman's remark about what Spanish is "good for." There are times when, in addition to the usual suspicions people have about the underlying mindsets of English-Only types, that targeting Spanish and Spanish-speakers is something of a class distinction. For a long time, this implicit categorizing of Spanish as a second-tier language was prevalent in academe, too: when I was looking at language requirements for grad programs back in the '80s, the preferred languages were French, German, and Italian. Some would allow you to petition to use Spanish to satisfy the requirement if you could show that Spanish would in some way figure into your research interests--in other words, if it had some practical value to you as a scholar. Never mind that you'd most likely never have to actually use French or German or Italian when conducting research in English-language literature.

Secondly, in that same passage, Millman may undercut his own argument: you quote him as arguing that learning another language is, "relatively speaking, a luxury good." Yet, look again at this sentence of his that you quote: "Spanish is good for basically two things. First, communicating with immigrant neighbors, employees or clients." What more practical relationships are there, for the community or for business, than these?

Sorry: I'm just preaching to the choir here. But it's as though some of these folks are so afraid of brown-skinned people and presume (wrongly) that they have no desire to assimilate that they forget everything they've ever read about previous waves of immigrant populations and don't know or care that Latinos are no different in their assimilation patterns from those earlier immigrants. Learning and speaking English is part of assimilation, yes; but so also are participation in commerce, in the election of representatives, etc. It seems to me that facilitating those processes is, or should be, a two-way street (or a multi-way street in places like Los Angeles). Those things can, initially, be accomplished in any language.

Anonymous said...

I don't know this Noah fellow from Adam but I wonder why you're respectful to the argument, at least as it's presented here. It's terrible. It's so obviously a distortion of what Obama said or favors that it's hard not to think the reply must be either dishonest or stupid. Maybe even if so your calm reply is the best way, pedagogically, to respond but it's beyond me to see why it _deserves_ this reply when it's so clearly and obviously not responding to what Obama said or implied. (Beyond that, the idea that learning other languages is only useful if one wants bilingualism or is generally "useless" is so stupid that it's hard to know where to start with it.) It's a service, I guess, to have you carefully and calmly refute the idea but it's such a dumb claim that it hardly seems to deserve it.

(On a mostly unrelated note I'm reading Jan-Werner Muller's recent book _Constitutional Patriotism_ and want to recommend it to you. It's really great and also short, a virtue in a book, I think.)

Russell Arben Fox said...

John, good catch in regards to that contradiction in Noah's argument; I hadn't noticed it. But it's right there: in what sense is learning to deal with "immigrant neighbors, employees or clients" a luxury good? It's going to be those who can't afford to live in mostly white gated communities, those who work in construction, real estate, or other mostly laboring or blue-collar professions, who are going to most need that "luxury"!

Matt, Noah is actually a very intelligent, very careful guy; I've been reading for years, and he is one of the more thoughtful bloggers, especially when it comes to the various intersections of religion or morality and democratic politics, that I've ever read. I think it's pretty clear that this post of his is more a visceral reaction than anything else; as he says in the original post I linked to, as a man who basically self-identifies with the right and the Republican party he was bound to glom onto something to dislike about Obama eventually, and this happened to be it. But really, it's unworthy of him to unload on Obama in the way he does, especially on this set of issues (language, assimilation, etc.) which so many people either demagogue or ignore entirely. So consider this post a sign of respect for what he's written in the past. (Oh, and thanks for the book recommedation; I'll check it out.)

Anonymous said...

I am disturbed by your portrayal of bilingual education here; it shows a common misunderstanding of how bilingual education works. Dual language programs (also called dual immersion or two-way immersion programs) -- which seems to be what you are referring to here -- serve both minority language-speaking children and majority-language speaking children and in many such programs all subjects are taught in both languages. There is a lot of research that shows that teaching content material in a language is the best way to learn a language, and certainly dual language programs in the U.S. have shown to be the most successful way to educate Spanish speaking children -- and the anglophone children excel in both their academic subjects AND learn a second language. This is something that comprehensive research showed over a decade ago, but that most Americans -- including many educators -- do not seem to grasp: bilingualism is not an impediment to education!

Some helpful sources:
Thomas, W. and Virginia Collier. 1995. Language Minority Student Achievement and Program Effectiveness. Research Summary. Fairfax, VA: George Mason University.

Thomas, W. and Virginia Collier. 1997. School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students. Washington, D.C.: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.

Janet Fuller, Dept. of Anthropology
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale

Anonymous said...

Collecting ideas here, as I read through the post:

Does it matter that in some places the people did not come to the US, but rather the US came to them? My brother-in-law is from the Rio Grande Valley, and his grandmother never learned English. His family was in the Valley long before it belonged to America. Does that affect your argument? Why or why not?

"teaching one's own [language] properly"

Just what constitutes "properly" is a very contested question in many places. BBC pronunciation, Parisian versus Provencal French, Plattdeutsch or Bavarian versus Hanoverian German, how Silesian relates to other forms of Polish, and on and on. Assuming agreement on what "properly" means strikes me as eliding much of the argument.

(As an aside, this -- "The optimal situation from almost every perspective is to have a national language that everyone acknowledges and speaks." -- from Millman is pretty silly, given that in the vast majority of Europe, for example, his optimal situation has been achieved by uprooting, repressing or exterminating speakers of minority languages. This is not the way forward for the US.)

Millman's argument, as you quote it here, strikes me as simply an argument from dominance, for laziness.

Anonymous' comment also makes good points. My Danish friend learned chemistry in English. That's the kind of thing you can do later when you start foreign languages in early elementary school.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Dr. Fuller,

Thanks for taking the time to comment on my piece. I've no doubt that we're likely in agreement on the proper way to respond to the bulk of the claims Noah advanced in his original piece. But when it comes to the particular matter of bilingual education, I'm going to have to dissent from your claims, or at least make my doubts pretty clear. While I am by no means an expert on bilingual pedagogy--and I'll take a look at the studies by the Colliers which you cite--the work I am familiar with (by scholars like Rosalie Porter and educators like Ken Noonan) all seem to suggest that 1) yes, dual language or dual immersion programs are pretty effective at teaching Spanish or other foreign languages to native English-speaking students, if only because it increases their opportunity/expectation to really use the language, but that 2) in practice, such programs often seriously undermine or interfere with effective English language acquisition, especially in regards to immigrant or second-generation immigrant or others non-native English speaking students of a young age. And since this population is often also dealing with the additional burden of poverty, enabling them to more rapidly and strongly develop a foundation in the English language is important not just for arguably abstract or philosophical, culture-maintenance or nation-building reasons, but for very practical fill-out-forms-and-obtain-good-jobs reasons as well.

None of this is to say that I wouldn't want to see Spanish or other foreign language instruction introduced in American schools early; I would like to see it, for all the reasons I lay out in my post. Being a believer in the importance of a common civic/linguistic ground in a society isn't a good enough reason--as Noah seems to imply it should be--to be dismissive of a strong emphasis on learning Spanish in the elementary schools, for example. I emphatically do support that...as long as it doesn't come along with a pedagogy which interferes in basic English literacy training.

I'll finish this long comment--and I appreciate you giving the excuse to write it; I'm sorry I didn't respond sooner--by quoting a statement by Peter Schuck, author of Diversity in America and an immigration scholar, from 2007:

[T]he arguments over bilingual education are an amalgam of social science claims, ethnic politics, educational theory, nostalgic history, and sheer ideology. Much of this debate depends, as it should, on the details of particular programs, especially their implementation. But immigrant parents, who have the greatest stake in effective bilingual programs, have made up their minds: Their opposition is both persistent and widespread. A Public Agenda poll published in 2003 found that almost two-thirds of immigrants wanted all public school classes to be taught in English rather than having children of immigrants take some courses in their native language....[In sum, b]ilingualism is desirable, but English proficiency is [considered to be] essential. As long as the tradeoff between them continues, the latter must be our first priority.

Russell Arben Fox said...


Does it matter that in some places the people did not come to the US, but rather the US came to them? My brother-in-law is from the Rio Grande Valley, and his grandmother never learned English. His family was in the Valley long before it belonged to America. Does that affect your argument? Why or why not?

Interesting question, and I don't have an easy answer. I suppose the more theoretically inclined part of me would say "no"; the U.S. may have "come to them" in ways that we might consider unjust, but it has come nonetheless, and now the Rio Grande Valley is part of the cultural/legal/political/linguistic context that is the U.S. But of course, simply waving my hands and saying that doesn't make it true on the ground; an old friend of mine and her husband lived for a few years in the Rio Grande Valley, and she was deeply impressed by the degree to which "American culture" never permeated that far south. So I suppose I would have to say that, as much as I like Herder, I not only shouldn't ever make the mistake of equating his ideas with sovereign states, but I should be careful even with speaking of a Volk in terms of specific defined territories and borders as well.

Just what constitutes "properly" is a very contested question in many places....Assuming agreement on what "properly" means strikes me as eliding much of the argument.

Well, I think that's why it's important to keep in mind that the "conservative" truth of Noah's claims is a broad one, overlooking the ebb and flow of particular accents, vocabularies, styles, and vernaculars within any given language. Things change, not the least reason for which being demographic realities which introduce "foreign"--in our case in the U.S. today, Spanish--usages and slang into everyday conversation. Fearing that, or more specifically fearing becoming familiar with it, takes language to be something static, which it clearly isn't.

[I]n the vast majority of Europe, for example, [Noah's] optimal situation has been achieved by uprooting, repressing or exterminating speakers of minority languages. This is not the way forward for the US.

I agree.

djredundant said...

Personally, I think that Obama and Millman are missing the plot on a few points:
1. A presidential candidate has no business scolding the electorate on what they should and should not be teaching their children, nor trying to shame us into pushing different elements of our culture to the forefront when we have a free and open education system.
2. By extension, the federal government should not be dictating curriculum-- if Arizonians want to learn Spanish, great-- if Alaskans want to learn Inuit, also great. Stay out of it Washington.
3. This entire argument for Obama and/or his detractors is a part of that 'kitchen table politics', where Obama is not really concerned about American linguistic skills, but rather trying to appeal to those self-declared intellectuals (the 50% of us with an IQ over 100), who feel shame at our mono-linguistic moron redneck cousins. It's a political trick-- nothing more.
4. Lastly, but perhaps most important: teaching your children European languages is like teaching them horse-riding or caligraphy-- quaint, but so very 19th century. Chinese, anyone?