The Myth of Useless Languages

I perused our ever-boring newspaper in search of anything worth reading when I came across an article about our local school’s experiment with implementing German classes in its curriculum. For years they’d offered only Spanish, and since I was teaching myself Japanese in high school, I skipped taking a foreign language class altogether. Say what you want about how it looks to a college, I didn’t want it interfering with my quest to dominate all the necessary kanji to read Japanese!

I knew that they’d brought on a German teacher the previous year and started their brand new German course. From what I’d seen, it had been a success. At least, I encountered a group of high school girls working as waitresses who were happily practicing their German with a customer who happened to be an immigrant from Germany. They were excited about the class and the advancements they were making.

This is my first article on Medium, but I’m sure I’ll be talking about languages a lot (I learn them all the time!), so you’ll have ample opportunity to hear me rant about the poor state of language education and why the classroom isn’t the very best place to learn foreign languages. However, in this case I was excited to see students who were happy and putting their skills to the test. Spanish students never had that opportunity, as Minnesota’s frozen north isn’t home to a great many Spanish speakers and high school students can’t afford a never-ending stream of lessons on sites like iTalki.

The newspaper article I was reading said that the subject of German classes was brought up at an open meeting and the way-too-influential woman who owns our local lumber company made loud objections to the inclusion of German classes. Her problem? That German isn’t useful. Most Americans who speak a second language, or speak no English at all, are Spanish speakers, hence Spanish is the only language worth learning. The end. No room for discussion. The outburst resulted in German being cut from the curriculum once again.

Needless to say, my blood boiled. I just about ripped the paper up and tossed it outside. Then, grabbing my trusty pen, I began to vent my frustrations in a letter to the editor, but the little amount of space afforded to me could hardly contain my own objections.

There is no useless language. Period.

When it comes down to it, there are no useless languages. To ask which language is the most useful is to ask the question, “Which is most useful: a hammer, a wrench, or a saw?” The answer is simple: it depends on the job! If I’m hanging something on the wall, I’d like a hammer to drive in the nail. I use a wrench often when I’m “fixing” my truck, and I’d never use either of those tools to saw off the end of a board.

To address the first part of the woman’s argument, it’s true that most people in America who speak a second language or a single non-English language are Spanish speakers. There’s no arguing with the facts on that point, but then we must delve a little deeper because there’s some other facts lurking just below the surface.

First of all, there aren’t many Spanish speaking people in northern Minnesota. Most of the Spanish speakers are best found around border states, placing them out of reach for most of us. However, according to one newspaper article, the Fargo-Moorhead area (very near where we live) is home to so many Somalis now that it was surpassed Norwegian, becoming the new second-most spoken language in the region. Taking those facts at face value, our students shouldn’t be learning Spanish, they should be learning Somalian and Norwegian!

Just from my own anecdotal evidence, Finnish is also a widely spoken language in our area, so maybe we should spend our time studying the beautiful but notoriously difficult to pronounce Finnish language!

The point is that a language’s immediate usefulness depends a lot on where you live. If you live in California, for example, then Spanish would indeed be the most useful second language you could learn based off of regional languages alone. However, we aren’t looking at regional languages alone, we’re going deeper than that!

A language’s usefulness or uselessness ultimate comes down to you, not facts about the local population or how many X speakers there are in the country you live in. Your own language interests and goals are what determines a language’s usefulness. After all, a language is a tool, and just like the tool question, it all comes down to what you want to do.

It can be a career-related decision, or maybe you’re planning on traveling to or moving someplace new. One student who was particularly unhappy that the language was cut was a young man who had fallen for a German exchange student and decided that he was going to move to Germany to be with her. He was already looking for colleges he could go to and was working hard at learning the language so he could attend. For him, German was a useful, necessary tool.

Even if you don’t plan to move or take up a career in which having a certain language skill would be good, if you’re interested in a language, living or dead, it’s useful. All language is useful because learning a new language changes the way we think (our thoughts are literally restructured) and helps us to understand the perspectives of others from different cultures and different times. For that alone a language is useful.

Look at the state of Native American languages in the United States of America. The native speakers of such beautiful languages as Cherokee and Lakota are dwindling in number. Native Americans were forced to abandon their languages by policies that declared their culture and tongues to be useless, like dead weights keeping them from fully integrating into the larger American society and identity. Those languages were important, and now they’re dying.

There is no useless language, whether you’ve set out to save a language from extinction, intend to read The Odyssey in its original language, plan to go into business, or just want to talk to the little old German immigrant who frequents the local cafe.

Guy Andersin spends his time writing, learning languages playing video games, creating games for PC and iPhone, binge watching movies and TV shows, and camping.

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