Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Ruminating on Teaching Foreign Languages

This past weekend I went to the HMS Colloquium held by my department chair, Young-Key Kim-Renaud. It was on Korean linguistics and I found it more interesting than I thought I would. The focus of the speakers was the use of honorifics in Korean, and this got me to thinking about how true it is that language provides insights into a society and its culture.

One speaker mentioned the levels of honorifics that I found amazing and scary at the same time. In Japanese, a speaker needs to understand the social position of the listener, while in Korean one also needs to consider the social position of the topic in the utterance. This is true in Japanese to an extent, but in Korean, one needs to manifest the social position of even family members when speaking: A daughter speaking to her mother about her older sister will require--if I understood this correctly--three levels of honorifics: A low one for the speaker, a high level of respect for the mother and a level of respect to the elder sister but not as high as the mother. Whew! As a stubborn everyone-is-equal American, this level of distinction might prevent me from studying Korean. Or not.

Either way, there is no doubt that it is worth studying. Today's academic administrators give short shrift to foreign language teaching by devaluing it when they insist it is no longer necessary as a requirement in general education.  This is a reflection of their short-sightedness. and shows that they really don't know what they are talking about. Language is not only a communicative tool. It is a reflection of the society and culture in which it is embedded, and Korean is a rather pointed example. Social hierarchy, familial hierarchy are all manifested in each speech act.

Why are foreign languages undervalued so? This used to be the bedrock of a liberal arts education--an education that promotes an understanding among different interests, fields and cultures--but now, at many institutes of higher education--foreign language is not even required for a single year. Literature, philosophy, anthropology, and other fields are equally important as we strive to educate a group of individuals that are the future of our society and culture. What are we teaching them? That you don't need to know other points of view? That understanding different thoughts and cultures is a waste of time?

I sometimes worry that we have lost too much perspective regarding what is important in our $ociety.

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