Can We Rid Language Departments of the F-Word?

Languages do not lend themselves to precise categorization any more than national boundaries do, Roberto Rey Agudo argues.

April 7, 2021
 
 
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Languages stand in as shorthand for nationality in all sorts of official and informal contexts. Some countries have official languages. Many others, the United States included, require some proof of language proficiency for naturalization; we teach and learn “foreign languages” in schools and colleges.

But the association between language and nationality is also arbitrary and vague. Take the case of the film Minari winning the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Minari tells an archetypally American story: an immigrant family in search of economic prosperity caught between the traditions of the place of origin (South Korea) and the adopted home (Arkansas). Because a substantial part of the dialogue is in Korean, however, the movie was not eligible for the Best Drama award. Its language makes it foreign, despite being an American film and telling an American story.

My point is not to quibble with the award rules that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association sets, which consider foreign any movie with more than 50 percent of its dialogue not in English. Rather it is to note that when it comes to languages, the label “foreign” can be, at best, as meaningless and arbitrary as the 50 percent dialogue rule, and at worst, harmful. If we applied the 50 percent rule to the 22 percent of multilingual households in the latest U.S. Census survey, I suspect casual conversations in many families -- including my own -- would not always pass the foreignness test.

And yet the word "foreign" persists in countless language departments and language centers, in federal programs promoting and funding language learning and instruction, and even in the largest professional organizations for language teachers in the United States, the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages, or ACTFL. And that raises the question: Foreign as opposed to what?

We tend to map languages onto discrete national boundaries, as if they matched the neatly colored countries on a world globe or in an atlas. But languages do not lend themselves to precise categorization any more than national boundaries do. Language minorities exist in countries that we strongly associate with a national language. The language of power and colonization in one country can be the minoritized, low-prestige language in its neighbor to the north. And that’s before we even talk about global Englishes and whether English is a foreign language in most of the world at all.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines foreign as pertaining, characteristic or derived from another country -- as not domestic or native. Any domestic language spoken in the United States, then, is an American language. The linguistic landscapes and soundscapes in big cities and small towns, the music and the television we stream, all belie the foreignness of Korean, Spanish or just about any language you can study on college campuses. What makes them foreign is not their country of origin -- by that measure, English is just as foreign as Spanish -- but the all-or-nothing, ingrained inability to fit any language other than English into the neat box of American identity.

It is true than in teaching language, we distinguish between second and foreign language instruction depending on the context where the learning takes place. The former refers to the acquisition of the target language in a context where that language is commonly spoken -- say, a newly arrived immigrant learning English in the United States. But in most contexts, "foreign" is not a neutral term. We can replace "foreign" with "global," "world" or "international," as many language programs in K-12 and higher ed have done in recent years. But the implication remains the same: if it is not English, then it is not domestic or native; if it is not English, then it is alien.

A Nativist Fantasy

To the extent that language also functions as an oral marker of difference, particularly race, tagging other languages as foreign takes on insidious connotations ranging from discrimination to outright hate. The last five or six years have seen an increase in hate crimes and hate incidents inspired by ethno-nationalist sentiment. From verbal and physical attacks on Spanish speakers to the recent episodes of anti-Asian violence, these attacks victimize those who look and sound different from a nativist fantasy of what Americans look and sound like.

I am by no means suggesting that the acronym ACTFL is hateful, any more than awarding a movie a Golden Globe in the foreign language category is a hate incident. But the rationale for qualifying languages with an othering modifier -- "foreign," "global," "world" -- much like excluding a bilingual film from the Best Drama category, draws from the same ideology that equates American identity exclusively with English and leaves other languages on the outside.

Professional organizations like ACTFL and departments of language and literature can lead the way by dropping the F word, and not just from the letterhead. Spanish, Korean, Russian, Arabic -- those are not just languages spoken in countries whose identifiable monuments grace the covers of language textbooks but also the domestic, native languages of communities around us. We need to stop viewing the languages we teach as only foreign, and start seeing the language practices of those communities as equally worthy of researching, teaching and studying.

When news of Minari’s nomination as a foreign film came out, the writer Viet Thanh Nguyen asked, thinking about the languages that bind immigrant communities in the United States, “When do these languages stop being ‘foreign’?” Unless we start looking at language and identity with greater nuance, American languages -- that is, all except one -- will never reach that point.

Bio

Roberto Rey Agudo (@robertoreyagudo) is the language program director of the department of Spanish and Portuguese at Dartmouth College and was a 2018 Public Voices fellow with The OpEd Project.

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