History had its eyes on North Dakota State’s prestigious Faculty Lectureship on Thursday night.
“You see, it was a hundred years ago this year that numerous state governments in the United States did their best to try to make their citizens ignorant of all other languages besides English, and the event that started that movement happened exactly one hundred years ago today,” Bruce Maylath said, an NDSU English professor and the 2017 lectureship award recipient.
On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany, entering the U.S. into WWI.
Exactly a century later, on a night in which the U.S. fired 59 missiles at a Syrian airfield, Maylath discussed the dangers of standardizing monolingualism in the U.S to more than 100 students and faculty at Century Theater.
“What followed (the century since) is a history that almost no one today is aware of, because Americans became so afraid to talk about it,” Maylath said. “So let’s talk.”
Maylath graciously gave his speech in English, which may seem like a given in Fargo, North Dakota. English, though, is a newcomer to the region.
“Here along the border of North Dakota and Minnesota, Dakota was the main language just five generations ago, and Norsk, or Norwegian, was commonly heard on the streets of Fargo just three generations ago,” Maylath said.
Before WWI, a third of all Minnesota schools taught primarily in German, Maylath said. “This statistic does not include the ones that taught primarily in Norwegian or Polish.”
That all changed soon after America joined the war. A “pathological” mindset settled into the cultural norm: English is the language of Americans; anything else isn’t.
Extermination of languages began extending past the eradicating of Native American languages, which were often beat out of Indian children at boarding schools. German families and cities Anglicized their names, and school administration banned any foreign language instruction before the ninth grade.
“The last I checked, Kansas still has that law in place,” Maylath said.
English became the default language of the nation, and later, the world. With this privilege, native speakers haven’t had a need to learn a second language, much less respect other tongues.
That causes problems.
Monolingualism is “undermining the effectiveness of professionals in this country,” Maylath said. “It leads to dismissiveness of other languages.” Even accented English is discredited — Think: students complaining about not understanding non-native professors. It’s their fault they haven’t perfected our hodgepodge of a language, not ours for failing to empathize and trying to understand their attempts.
Benefits of bilingualism
Not only is anecdotal evidence ample regarding the positives of learning another language.
“Just type ‘advantages of bilingualism’ into the Google Scholar search engine, and you’ll get back over 35,000 results of studies revealing the benefits,” Maylath said.
From fighting dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease to strengthening decision-making functions, scientific studies repeatedly show learning another language betters cognitive activity.
“Do you see why I call the cult of monolingualism pathological?” Maylath asked. “It’s detrimental to our physical and mental health.”
Schools, and the population at large, continue to delay in capitalizing on this information.
Maylath cited research that indicates a mere 15 percent of U.S. elementary schools offer foreign language programs; middle schools are rapidly losing their world language classes and the largest shortage of qualified K-12 teachers in a subject area is language or bilingual teachers.
It’s no wonder only a fifth of the U.S. population reports having knowledge of more than one language — which pales to the two-thirds of Europeans who claim to be at least bilingual.
Perhaps most concerning about monolingualism, beyond the cultural and economic barriers it creates, is its many forms.
It ranges from passive scorn of a dialect (of which none are linguistically better than another) to using language as rationale for violence.
During WWI, Minnesota Gov. Joseph Burnquist used hyper-nationalist propaganda to strike fear into his constituents to get reelected 1918. One poster showed the tarring and feathering of Minnesota Germans.
Last fall, a white woman from Coon Rapids, Minnesota, assaulted a Somali woman with a beer mug because she wasn’t speaking English.
“Tar and feathers must not have been available,” Maylath said, calling for the audience to not condone either discrete or blatant monolingualism.
“Americans’ English-only attitude is closely tied to America’s periodic waves of fears of immigrants, and I don’t have to tell you that we are currently smack in the middle of one of those waves right now,” Maylath said. “ … You see, if you limit yourself to a single language, you don’t even know what you’re missing, much less what you’re doing to others.”