The language multiverse

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 12.02.2021

When it comes to teaching foreign languages, the systemic methodology in American schools is simple: every student, at one point or another, should try to learn one. In my 1990s suburban Detroit schooldays, we kicked off with a very light regime of Spanish at age eleven, which mildly intensified a year or two later; at thirteen, you could switch to French if you wanted (though it was not popular); and at fourteen, the first year of high school, you could continue with Spanish or French or opt instead for Latin, German, Chinese, Japanese, or American Sign Language.

Typically, switching languages at any point was a sign of academic weakness, starting over with the basics being the typical move of shortsighted slackers seeking easier grades. Thus, top-flight students carried straight through with Spanish, while Chinese and Japanese, whose basics require years to master – conveniently, about as many years as high school itself – were complete blowoffs.

I say “methodology” and call it “simple” because inherent in my account is that everyone in the school district counted on the fact that every student spoke English at home. This made the question of languages no question at all: every nook and cranny of the educative sphere (and of a great many other spheres) transpired in the shared native tongue, and the sole exception, possibly in your entire life, was Spanish class. The extent of our imagination on the matter was to offer the abovementioned alternatives to Spanish. (People also reasoned that anyone not speaking English at home was going to master it shortly, anyway, Michigan being extraordinarily far away from any non-anglophone stronghold.)

In this context of English and its supreme dominance, Spanish was an entirely theoretical academic subject. Elsewhere in the USA you might have heard it in public, but in the relatively closed-off world of suburban Detroit there was no difference at all between the perceived “usefulness” of Spanish and that of Japanese, calculus, ancient Egyptian history, or playing the jazz flute. The only proven benefit of Spanish, to be entirely honest, was that it appeared on your academic transcript and thus represented a means by which to grab the ear of a good university.

To say that Luxembourg contrasts this situation is probably the biggest understatement in this week’s edition of the Land. The way I understand it, the Grand Duchy is in perpetual crisis when it comes to the place of languages within its education system: ever-shifting demographics throw monkey wrench after monkey wrench into the traditional matrix of multilingualism that roots the country. One language is spoken in primary school, another in secondary school, and still others in foreign language classrooms – and it is nearly guaranteed that none of the above is Portuguese or Croatian, which may (for example) be the music of your thoughts. Non-Luxembourgish students must learn and employ French and German, at least one of which probably mystifies their parents; they’ll have to pick up Luxembourgish, too, for practical purposes, while doing English or Latin or whatever as an additional subject.

In fairness, the system hardly seems straightforward for the native junior populace, either, who must also get the hang of several languages they don’t use at home. Instead of joining the raging argument over who should learn what and when in Luxembourg, however, I would rather make an observation about the nature of language study in this country. Nobody from my schooldays in Michigan ever managed to get beyond Spanish as a cold system of grammar rules and vocabulary. Even in the seventh or eighth year of study, as I observed from the comfortable distance of my Chinese classroom, pupils were still drilling structure and pronunciation. The language was not a living thing: it had no literary reason of being, whether hifalutin or mundane. Instructors were not tasked with developing your critical thinking skills, knowledge of world events, or poetic sensitivities via the new language. But in the Grand Duchy, there is no line between “language” and “literature” as such: as soon as the basics are covered, students are flung headlong into the language as a means of pursuing other types of truth. If in the USA pupils examine the running water from the shore, over here they float down the river and study the art of navigation.

Whatever difficulties arise in that, and I know there are plenty, this is multilingualism as an attitude rather than merely an attribute. And that attitude, in all its particularities, is a Luxembourgish madness too valuable to lose..

Jeffrey Palms
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