Opinion: A cure to cultural barriers: Learning languages

Posted on Mar 20 2017 - 8:01am by Francisco Hernandez

To reject what seems foreign is an undoubtedly instinctual human trait.

Tribes, empires and nations have always divided what they defined as “us” from the strange, exotic and even frightening concept of “them.”

The Romans referred to those north of the Danube River as “barbarians,” and not so long ago, colonial powers labeled their overseas subjects as “sub-races.”

Languages, too, divided foreign from domestic. The Romans once considered the languages that have now become English and German to be “barbaric talk,” and European settlers similarly discriminated against indigenous languages all over the globe.

Sadly, our world is not much less xenophobic these days. How else could we explain that, while more than 65 million people are being displaced by war, hunger, prosecution and climate change, some European countries and the United States are increasing their regulations against immigration?

Why else do nationalist leaders consider the languages and religions of immigrants un-American or un-European?

As with many other social injustices, the change will have to first come from public opinion.

There has been great progress in the views of immigrants in the United States, where 63 percent of the population thinks immigrants strengthen a country, according to a Pew Research poll.

However, these views change depending on the type of immigrants and how “foreign” we consider them, their culture and their language.

For this reason, migrants from Muslim-majority countries are currently suffering the greatest discrimination. Their religion and culture just seem too unfamiliar and too incompatible with our own traditions.

Why else would we be willing to accept “extreme vetting” or outright bans, even when we can see the fear and the devastation in Syria with only a few clicks on our computers?

That is where learning languages has an important role. Since languages generally have divisive effects among populations, what better way is there to heal those divisions than learning a foreign language?

Learning Arabic, a language often stereotyped as the speech of terrorists, would open our eyes to a rich and insightful culture.

Spanish, a language some want to keep behind a wall and reduce to fast food menus and signs at the Home Depot, can give us access to an understanding of Spanish-speaking migrants. We should not forget most immigrants are already making a great effort to learn English.

Obviously, many of us might not have the time to learn multiple languages, but we are certainly in the best position to do so; we are on a campus with extensive foreign language programs, surrounded by a significant number of international students, and with a growing number of accessible and economical websites and apps to learn languages.

In fact, just learning the basics is usually enough to understand the different world perspectives that come with different languages.

Many immigrants, especially those in extreme need, deserve this change.

If you believe in a world where a person’s fate is not determined by his or her country of birth, you deserve it, too.

Francisco Hernandez is a junior international studies major from Valencia, Spain.