There’s a lot of talk about the importance of language learning in the United States. Many experts insist that we as a country are falling behind the rest of the world in terms of promoting it in our education. This country is missing out, they say, holding itself back from its fullest potential by not promoting multilingualism in its people. Yet despite this point of view, or perhaps in response to it, second language acquisition programs are growing at an exponential rate in this country. In 2013 Americas Quarterly reported that even though funding for programs is diminishing overall, second language learning programs in this country’s public schools had risen to well over 800. Many colleges and universities require at least some language study during their courses of study as well. This is a good thing, in general; being bilingual can open doors and help one connect with other groups of people that may otherwise have been out of reach. As multiculturalism grows in the United States, this will prove to be vitally important. Yet while the benefits of learning another language are obvious, the task also comes with certain responsibilities. Exposure to new cultures provides opportunities to learn and to participate when invited, but also opportunities to appropriate. As second language learners, it is important to remember to not appropriate anything to which one does not have a right.
Cultural appropriation is a hot button issue in today’s world, but what is it exactly? About News cites a law professor from Fordham University defining cultural appropriation as “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” This can include taking forms of dress, music styles, cultural traditions, and so on. There have been many instances of alleged cultural appropriation in popular culture in the past few years. Vanessa Hudgens, for example, was widely criticized in 2014 for wearing a Bindi to the Coachella event. The Bindi, like many religious icons in the modern era, does not always carry the weight that it once did, but it still has significance in Indian (and more specifically Hindu) culture. Vanessa is not the only celebrity to be criticized for this sort of appropriation; Beyoncé, Coldplay, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna have all been called out on it.
Yet cultural appropriation is not something that is an exclusively celebrity problem; rather, it is something that the every day person faces, and especially the second language learner. Learning another language and learning about the people who speak it heightens the risk of appropriation. Language learners are especially equipped to learn about and appreciate other cultures that are significantly different than their own, but must work to not insert themselves where they don’t belong or to silence the voices of those who actually pertain to that culture. A perfect example of this is what is known as weeaboo culture. The term weeaboo originated as an internet meme, poking fun at non-Japanese people (and especially Americans) who obsess over everything Japanese, often to extreme lengths. Second language learners of Japanese occasionally earn themselves this title when their appreciation of the Japanese culture reaches excessive levels, bordering on fetish. Weeaboo subculture is one example of the heated debate about the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, but it is not the only one. The many Hispanic and Mesoamerican cultures are often appropriated as well, Cinco de Mayo celebrations being only one example.
This phenomenon is such a problem because when (predominantly white) people appropriate traditions, dress, celebrations, and even language they gain praise and admiration for things people of color get ridiculed for doing. A prime example is the very subject of this article: second language learning. While those who learn to speak foreign languages are widely praised, immigrants who come to the United States are regularly ridiculed or even attacked for speaking their native tongues, or struggling in what limited English they possess. A Somali woman, for example, was brutally attacked in a Minnesota Applebee’s for choosing to speak her native tongue with her family – and she actually could speak English, they just chose as a family to speak a language that made them feel more comfortable.
This extends not only to multilingualism, however, but also to those who speak other dialects of English. Let’s take African American Vernacular English, or AAVE, as an example. AAVE is something commonly made fun of both among (predominantly white) people and in the media. Commonly referred to as “Ebonics” by the media, AAVE has been a subject of debate since the Oakland, CA school board decided to acknowledge it as a valid dialect of African American students spoken at home and used it to help gain a deeper understanding of “standard English.” This idea is supported by the fact that the linguistic community views AAVE as a valid dialect of the English language with its own grammar rules and conventions, just as British English would be considered. Despite this, many people consider AAVE to be improper English and mock African Americans for speaking it, despite the fact that much of modern slang is rooted in it. “Bae,” “on fleek,” and “yas” are just a few examples. While the black community gets mocked for this type of “Ebonics” or “ghetto slang,” it becomes commonplace and celebrated (read: appropriated) in, for example, the white gay community. And this is just one example. The same can be said for dreadlocks and Native American headdresses.
Language learners, as previously discussed, are exceptionally at risk for this type of appropriation. Through the process of learning a new language and, by extension, learning about the culture of those who speak it, learners are exposed to new experiences and new ways of living. When invited, it can occasionally be okay to participate in these experiences. However when someone who does not hail from that culture flaunts these things as their own, cultural appreciation officially crosses the line into cultural appropriation. This ties back to the idea of white privilege; when one’s culture is the predominant in a society, such as white culture is in the United States, the idea of appropriation is not something one thinks about on a regular basis. Even this article, written by a white, relatively straight-passing white male, enjoys elements of white privilege. People of color have been saying all of these things for years, yet white privilege says that the author of this article can almost expect to be taken more seriously. These are things that language learners – and especially those in the white, English-speaking majority in this country, need to consider. It is the responsibility of each individual to own their privilege and use it to help quash cultural animosity, ethnocentrism, and xenophobia.
To conclude then, it can be said with certainty that language learning is vitally important to a society, and something that ought to be supported and encouraged in this society. Learning a language and learning about the people who speak it can help bridge gaps and broaden horizons, as well as facilitate the elimination of ignorance and the deepening of understanding between various groups of people. However, language learning comes with responsibilities. Being exposed to new cultures and people brings opportunities to participate – and to appropriate. A language learner must always be conscious of their impact. It is important not to silence the voices of those who belong to the cultures one is learning about and also to not take for one’s own what does not pertain to them. All language learners must be mindful of their own privilege and bridge gaps, not deepen them.