The vicious cycle of fl ignorance

Let me give you an example of what I used to think of as “culture” when you are learning another language. In the recent movie The Inglourious Basterds (or some such misspelling), the German-speaking English soldier disguised as a German office gives himself away in a bar by raising three fingers when he calls for 3 drinks instead of the German way, two fingers and a thumb.

That is exactly the sort of culture we talked about when we talked about studying other languages and cultures: that an American soldier would know how to enter a home in another country, could observe customs – recall Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino when he pats the Hmong child on the head and raises hackles – and could know the terms and manners of respect so important in many cultures.

What do most fl teachers think of when they think of culture? I think over the past 40 years or so there’s been a shift to this small c or anthropological culture. Enough Americans have come to admire the person who can sit with the Sioux or palaver with the Zulu and join in an Armenian wedding (I remember Paladin played by Richard Boone speaking Armenian to an elder in the Old West and thus gaining acceptance).

Many of us who have in our own way participated in another culture have had experiences of not only fitting in but impressing our hosts by showing our knowledge of how one acts. We used to teach our counselors how to approach a Hispanic family and we would talk with local public and private school teachers with non-Anglo students in their classes.

One must keep in mind that during the 50s the image of the American abroad was that of the “ugly American” – a book title that did not mean what it has come to mean. We thought of the rich, arrogant American in a flowery shirt and his wife in shorts demanding ice in his drink in a loud voice, sure that the very volume would carry his meaning to non-English-speaking persons. And, of course, he treated every native of the country as wait staff.

Such stereotypes, true in part, caused a reaction. On top of that, we were faced with Communist insurgencies around the world taking place in cultures unlike the European cultures we were a little familiar with and we felt we could beat the Communists at their own game. We could do so by infiltrating the locals just as they did and we could do that b/c our agents and soldiers had been trained in languages and cultures.

It didn’t work out that way. WW II showed us that our college educated language students could not communicate in the language they had studied. Viet-Nam showed we lacked the personnel to take on that task and so resorted to brute force. We were unrealistic as to how long it takes to learn another language and culture.

I have a poster in my room I rescued from the ground at school. It’s a recruiting poster for airborne. As the trooper is jumping, the caption below him runs something like, “The jump wasn’t the problem; it was knowing which dialect of Arabic to use when I hit the ground”.

Well, true, Arabic is spoken over a wide area and many dialects of it are unintelligible to speakers of other dialects. Most educated people speak a type of Arabic that will float most anywhere but that won’t get you accepted by locals, esp uneducated ones. But just the idea that a young trooper could have been educated to speak several dialects of Arabic all the while doing his extensive military training, all crammed into a few short years, is ludicrous.

I believe the poster illustrates what’s wrong with our fl learning policy in this country and in our education system: the policy is planned by people who do not function in another language and culture and they are sold a bill of goods by people with an investment in making unrealistic claims. It’s the dog biting its own tail: we don’t have people educated in fl to make good decisions and plans and so people don’t get a good education in fl and they perpetuate the cycle.

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