In an article last Friday, the News reported that the number of students studying Arabic has grown in recent years, apparently due to a heightened interest in the culture and politics of the Middle East. One educator quoted in the article characterized some students’ reasons for studying Arabic — in order to go into government or to the CIA — as “negative.”
As a student of Arabic myself, I’ve always been intrigued by people’s reasons for studying this language and others. We hear a great deal about how Russian was useful during the Cold War; Arabic is said to be good for aspiring CIA analysts and crossers of cultural misunderstandings; Chinese is supposed to be the ideal language “for business.”
Each stated reason used to justify the study of a particular language contains a miniature worldview: How much will trade with China grow in the coming years? Will the United States engage in a prolonged confrontation with Iran? Will Spanish join English as a principal American language?
There are also more normative questions: Is it acceptable to study Arabic with the specific purpose of learning how to join Jack Bauer’s crusade? What’s so wrong about wishing to help defend the United States by becoming a translator of Farsi? Should we be learning languages to advance business careers, or ought we confine ourselves to the intellectual appreciation of morphological structures?
We are sometimes told not to use a language as a tool — to study it for its intrinsic value. The same complaint applies to any other subject: One should study mathematics to comprehend the beauty of an elegant proof, not to solve a system of linear equations in the physical world. One should take English classes to immerse oneself in great literature, not to learn how to write marketable books.
But the fact that someone is using a subject — especially a language — as a tool doesn’t invalidate his or her commitment to learning. Language is fundamentally a tool for communication: It allows people to associate, share ideas and better their lives. Language also shapes the way we look at the world; we can use it to understand how others this same world. Whether as a tool of communication for health or for wealth, language is studied in order to cut across boundaries of nationality and culture. The trade of tin and toys can drive us towards international cross-pollination just as surely as the trade of students and literature.
While using language as a tool isn’t inherently wrong, however, there comes a time in the learning process when each student needs to move beyond the classroom. Hours upon hours of listening comprehension will be unsatisfying unless the student finds something intrinsically interesting about the language’s idiosyncrasies — the sounds, the words that first appear absurd and even unnecessary, the window that is opened onto a different way of life. The important question is not why a student starts to study a language, but why he or she decides to stick with it. More often than not, the answer has to do with a genuine fascination with a set of different words and meanings.
A teacher of mine once remarked that in order to study a language well, you have to love it. But languages, in addition to being beautiful, are also deeply political. Promoting the French language as a cultural unifier is central to Quebecois nationalism — in the run up to referenda and elections, citizens are often classified based on their native tongue. The revival of the Hebrew language is essential to the modern Zionist project. Scottish highlanders have rallied around Gaelic for centuries.
Nevertheless, it is possible to love a language without sympathizing with an outlook that is closely intertwined with the words. We must be able to disagree with the French position on the war in Iraq without renaming the croissant, or to admire the elegance of Victorian English without subscribing wholeheartedly to imperialism. Language can be used for creative and destructive ends; both Goethe and Hitler spoke German. If we cannot separate a language from the opinions of some of its speakers, we reduce all language to politics and we relinquish a source of beauty and insight to our ideological opponents.
Language, available to everyone, can be a tool of anyone. In the process of making it personal, through study or practice, one gains the ability to use language in order to effect positive change.
Rachel Bayefsky is a junior in Morse College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays.