Whether you like it or not, globally your utility can be determined by what language (or languages) you speak. There is a silent hierarchy, and one that is not altogether fair.
In a previous post, I discuss the language schizophrenia I have observed in Morocco. In short, Moroccans face a mild day-to-day identity crisis in choosing which of the many widely-used languages to express themselves with. I’ve discovered a new layer to this argument now; while there is confusion in a country that is lost between Berber languages, formal Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, French, Spanish, and English, there is also a hierarchy of value.
At the bottom of this valuation is native Berber, then Moroccan Arabic, formal Arabic, Spanish, French, and on top is English.
What I’ve realized from this though, is that Moroccans, impressive and multilingual as they are, learn languages for utility, not sport. Colonized by the French and neighboring Spain, none of these languages are for fun. Moroccans also commonly learn Italian, or sometimes Turkish, if they have hopes of one day migrating to one of these countries.
Thinking about this has led me to question how it applies to the states. What languages are most common to learn in the US? (Note: This is not what people speak by circumstance, but chose to learn.) English by default, and then at the top is Spanish, then French, German, and following (unranked order) are probably Italian/ Mandarin/ Arabic/ Portugese, etc in very small numbers and among the very educated. This is our hierarchy. These are the languages we see most value in learning. But why?
Spanish makes sense. We have our border with Mexico, a heavy Latin influence, and the sheer fact that Spanish is the official language in 26 of the world’s 195 countries. But French next? German?
If we were more sensical, people would learn Mandarin, which has more native speakers than any other language on earth (and with which we share a lot of business and competition), or Arabic, which is the official language of 25 countries and used by all of those people following the world’s 2nd largest religion, Islam. (Check out this list of languages most popular by native speakers, if you’re curious.)
So, why doesn’t our hierarchy make sense? Well, in reality, Americans don’t really need to learn any languages at all. We are spoiled, as native speakers of the world’s lingua franca, the uniting language (Well, Brits and Aussies are, too). I was embarrassed by my own attribution of this, when visiting Istanbul with a pocket dictionary and intent to respect the culture by using some Turkish. Instead of this, upon realizing how widespread English was, I used that with which I felt comfortable the entire time instead, without even the “please”s and “thank you”s I had tried so hard to memorize.
It is just another factor by which we are privileged. Other cultures strive to learn, and see value in, our native tongue), when I can’t be bothered to learn “thank you” in Turkish when I am in Turkey.
So, why does this matter?
In a more and more globalized world community, there is a lot of value in respecting a culture for what it is. Even if that Spanish cashier will understand your “good morning” is “buenos dias” so hard to say?
Observing Americans abroad in many places, I have observed that apparently, yes, it is so hard. And possibly this is one of those reasons Americans are viewed as disrespectful of culture and otherwise all over the world.
Food for thought.
Thanks for reading my babbling, my curious-minded friends.
Ila al-liqa, or “until next time”,