The train between concourses in Atlanta Hartsfield airport is full of the heat, sweat, and silence any traveler comes to expect. There are three electric signs explaining the situation – one in English, one rolling between French, German, and Spanish, and the last one the more artful display of Arabic, Japanese, and Korean. Whichever one made the most sense to any particular traveler was unclear as we all kept our language to ourselves. Certainly, for many of them, English would have been enough – and not just because we were at the portal to Atlanta. To many people around the world, the language of the new globalization is the youngest one of all.
There are many reasons English became the standard around the world, the most important being the great standard that the American Empire created. It also helps that our language has always been flexible about importing bits and pieces of other tongues that had the jene se quois missing in native phrases. That’s where the story becomes remarkable, because since we the standard of the world we often see less reason to learn other languages. If we’re not on top of this, we can lose control of our own language. But what languages should we teach our kids to prepare them for the future?
All of them.
You never know what language is going to be important. I picked up German from my family, never thinking it would be useful in conference calls where everyone speaks their native language (it’s easier to understand language than it is to form it). As Brasil grows in importance, many Spanish speakers will find Portuguese will come in handy. For all we can tell, the financial sector might want to take a crash course in Mandarin Chinese, while our military learns Arabic or Farsi.
Since we can’t say just what will matter most to any one person, the most important thing we can teach our kids is the beauty of languages and where our own tongue comes from. I call it “Comparative Languages 101”.
My idea is to start out kids in about 7th grade, younger if it can be done, with a quick overview of how English is put together. From there, a list of about 20 common phrases ranging from “Hello” to “Thank you” to “Where is the Bathroom?” can be introduced in German and French, the languages we took the most from. A solid grounding in these three is not only good for Eurotravels, it’s good for understanding our own language.
From there, it should get more interesting. I’d start with a quick survey of other Germanic languages, especially Dutch and Norwegian. These two are so similar to ours that I find I can read Dutch just by pretending it’s badly spelled English and ignoring the many “aa” pairs. Once again, a short and practical list of how to greet a native speaker or easily ask for the loo (because if you need to know, you need to know).
Taking off through the Romance languages like Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian leads easily to Romanian and Slavic languages, where the Cyrillic takes us easily to Greek. A bit of history and a bit of culture should always accompany the magic list of practical phrases. A flight through Turkic to Arabic and Hebrew leads well to Farsi and Sanskrit, unless they fit better close to the Europeans. Then it can get wild with some Mandarin, Japanese, Korean and Malay.
At the end of the course, the students should be able to do more than ask for the bathroom all around the world (and thank the person who told them). They can then pick one language they like to study in more depth, proudly knowing just where it fits in a grander scheme of things.
English may be the standard language of the world, but you don’t have to travel much to see that in the early daze of globalization not much is standard. We should be prepared for anything – including how our own language is going to change as people from all over learn to form English words. The world is willing to come to us, at least mostly. How will we come to them?