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Is Learning Languages the Solution to Racism?

Updated on September 3, 2014
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Evaluating the problem: "racism still exists today"

With the advent of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter ushering us into the Information Age, it certainly seems as though the world is getting smaller. The world is at our fingertips: we have ready access to a greater wealth of information than ever before and we can easily connect with people from all over the globe. Countries are no longer composed of single, native races, but increasingly of whole myriads of different races and cultures. It seems that multiculturalism is inevitable, but for how long are we willing to resist it?

As Othello critic, Germaine Greer, describes Shakespeare's crudely racist villain:

"Iago is still alive and kicking and filling migrants' letterboxes with excrement."

Indeed, despite the increased contact with different ethnic groups, racism is still evident in society today. It is a well-known issue particularly in the United States, where, making history as the first black president, Barack Obama still cops a lot of racial prejudice from opposition leaders and fellow Americans. Whilst some argue he was only elected because of his color, others label him as Muslim or anti-Christ due to his middle name, Hussein. Meanwhile, the euro crisis has revealed xenophobia throughout Europe, as economies begin to collapse and countries fail time again to come to an effective, concrete solution, instead retreating to austerity measures and increased border controls. Even in the Southern Hemisphere, Australia seems to be in denial that racial discrimination towards their own indigenous population still exists.

No matter how times are changing, we still can't seem to band together to eliminate the problem. Why? Simply because we haven't addressed its root cause: ignorance. Racism stems from our lack of understanding of cultural differences. So, the first step towards solving racial discrimination is clear. We must address ignorance and start to build understanding between different races.

Evaluating the solution: "learning languages prevents racism"

There are many benefits of learning a second language. The most obvious benefits are that you gain greater opportunities for travel, work and study abroad. However, it goes even deeper than that. Languages provide us with an invaluable insight into the lifestyles and ways of thinking of others, as they facilitate increased and more effective communication between different races. Basically, knowing multiple languages will open a portal to a whole new world. On the other hand, when we are surrounded by people speaking in a language we don't understand, we automatically shut off and feel alienated from them. The contrast between the two situations is stark.

In Western countries, one often hears about Europeans who can speak three or four languages. Yet, it is still common for many English-speakers to be monolingual. In some cases, this is partly due to geographic location. New Zealand, for example, is relatively isolated from other countries and is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea. Its closest neighbor, Australia, is another English-speaking nation. Even its indigenous Maori people mostly speak English. As a result, there seems to be a lack of urgency for New Zealanders to learn any language besides English.

Situated directly above Latin America, the United States may appear to have less of an excuse to an outsider. However, despite the growing Hispanic population, many Americans still seem adamant on maintaining their monolingual status. But surely, English speakers can't rely on their one language forever. Mandarin has already taken over as the world's most widely spoken language, with almost 1.2 billion speakers, whilst China is emerging as the economic superpower. Spanish is hardly insignificant either, with half a billion speakers in around 20 different countries.

In essence, these issues are only contributing to the greater issue of racism. Once we start to implement comprehensive language programs into education from an elementary level, we will encourage young children to grow up more receptive of foreign cultures.

However, this doesn't mean that learning languages is the entire solution. As mentioned, many a European person can speak multiple languages, yet in the continent's most critical state, xenophobia seems to be growing. Like any human rights movement, combating racism is a slow and painful process, but the evidences of success will be clear when we start taking the first steps.

For those who are still skeptical as to the benefits of learning languages, just think. Knowing an entire language is a great deal of knowledge in itself. And as we all know, knowledge is power.

Other interesting hubs and counter-arguments:

I love my ideas being challenged, so feel free to comment. I have also searched around for some other hubs I find interesting or contrary to my own opinions. Here they are...

Giving credit where credit is due

I was inspired by Peter Leeper's hub on Should Americans Learn Spanish in Kindergarten, which outlines the rapidly growing Hispanic population in the United States and the necessity for Americans to learn Spanish accordingly, before they become inundated with a race they don't understand.

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    • profile image

      Riley 3 years ago

      Excellent post. I think monolingual people often forget that their cultural norms aren't standard, and learning to see the world from a new perspective helps to enable empathy for those from other cultures, it also means you will never mock anyone else's attempts at broken or nonstandard English ever again.

      I'm from the UK, learn some French in school and gained a moderate amount of fluency in Russian after leaving school. Best thing I ever learnt. It's truly enlightening to develop friendships with those from other countries in their own language.

    • Beata Stasak profile image

      Beata Stasak 5 years ago from Western Australia

      Great article, learning as such is a great tool to fight racism and learning of new language is even more powerful tool...thanks for sharing:)

    • everymom profile image

      Anahi Pari-di-Monriva 5 years ago from Massachusetts

      Thanks, Samantha! I was extremely engaged, and highly motivated to comment (glad it was somewhat cogent!), precisely because of your passion! Keep the passionate Hubs coming; I eagerly await reading them!

    • samanthamayer profile image
      Author

      samanthamayer 5 years ago from New Zealand

      To everymom, sincere thanks for the information you shared! As you can see I am very passionate about the subject so it's always fantastic to gain more insight. I also love literature and couldn't agree with you more on that count.

      You also make an interesting point about multiculturalism/diversity. Admittedly, it is easy to forget how far we have come and how much we are still developing.

    • samanthamayer profile image
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      samanthamayer 5 years ago from New Zealand

      Thank you ripplemaker and the HubNuggets team, I am honored to have been nominated. It looks like stiff competition, the other hubs in the category are marvelous!

    • dadibobs profile image

      dadibobs 5 years ago from Manchester, England

      This hub is without doubt worthy of your hubnugget award!

      Thanks for sharing :)

    • everymom profile image

      Anahi Pari-di-Monriva 5 years ago from Massachusetts

      First, let me say how much I enjoyed reading your hub! It is cogent and well-researched.

      But, as an anthropologist by both training and avocation, I would like to challenge one (not to be ornery or contrary, just to broaden the debate you began!)term - one that I have been challenging all my life, actually: race.

      There is no such thing as "races" among humans; we all belong to one "race," the human one. However, there are, of course, multiple ethnicities. "Race" is a biological term, equatable to "species." The test for diverse races or species is interbreeding: if a Black (Arab, Inuit, etc. etc.) man and an Asian (Maori, Uzbek, Greek, Italian etc. etc.) woman can interbreed (and they can!), then they are both of the same race/species (again, human).

      The other point that I think is often overlooked, at least since the rise of nationalism, across all cultures, is the fact that human societies have been multicultural and diverse, through interbreeding, since we spread through and out of Africa, since the dawn of humans as a species. Look at each individual's mitochondrial DNA and I think we would be quite surprised. PBS had a great show a few years back, hosted by Prof. Gates of Harvard, in which he tested a few celebrities' DNA, including his and Oprah's. In his own, I believe (though I could be wrong; I'm working from memory here and it's not what it used to be!), he found he had more Irish DNA than sub-saharan African!

      I think while we need to and should celebrate the unique and diverse, perhaps more importantly, we must begin to focus on the universality of the human experience. After all, isn't that truly what makes great literature - no matter from what part of the world - resonate with readers? Isn't that what makes movies from no-matter-where find an audience?

      Just thoughts - looking forward to reading more from you, and others!

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 5 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      I believe that if one learns the language of a race that she/he detests, it is a sign that one is open to understand and learn more about them. I guess that would pave the way to greater things.

      Well, beautiful things are happening right here too. Your hub has been nominated on the Hubnuggets. See it right here: http://ladyjane1.hubpages.com/hubnuggets6/hub/Last...

    • maxoxam41 profile image

      Deforest 5 years ago from USA

      Which country isn't racist? Every country has its mortal enemy. France pretends to be a country of asylum. It accepts political refugees and rejects refugees from Africa, kicks out gypsies... It praises fraternity and votes for the extreme right wing.

      How is New Zealand?

    • samanthamayer profile image
      Author

      samanthamayer 5 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks to everyone for all your comments. I'll try to respond as much as possible, although I'm afraid of writing another essay response!

      I still stick by languages as being of great benefit. In a world becoming more interconnected, I feel they should start to become a greater priority in education.

      The biggest clash seems to be whether Americans should be more than receptive of its (perhaps illegal) immigrants and actively seek greater understanding of their language and culture, or if it is the immigrants themselves who should make the effort to learn English and 'assimilate' (even amalgamate, it sounds like) into Western society. I think it's a two-way street. Neither race can completely shut the other out, and some steps need to be taken by both to meet somewhere in the middle. But where exactly do we draw the line? When have Americans done enough to accommodate foreigners? Is America's lack of an official language a truer reflection of its identity as a nation? Tough questions. In an ideal world, we'd have all the answers. I'll stop it there, but keep churning out the ideas! Thanks again :)

    • ithabise profile image

      Michael S. 5 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      SamanthaMayer, I think there might be two themes working in what you've presented based on the response you gave me, which I appreciate. They would be cultural exchange and racism, two very different things. I can definitely see how learning language benefits the first; but it will hardly change racism and only give the racist more reason to hate a group.

      Another commented about it being shameful that Americans are not encouraged to learn languages like people in other nations. But we must understand that America is easily an English-only nation looking at its geography, plus having English-speaking Canada to its north. Smaller nations, like those in Europe, will have more influx of "foreign" nationals from right next door. These smaller nations have a greater need for learning languages for daily life as well as trade.

      But I agree with American Romance greatly when it comes to immigrants to America: learn English. And the government isn't helping either by not having an official language. I can be sympathetic here because I have been the outsider when I lived in Japan. But I remembered just that: I was an outsider and not trying to become an insider on my own terms.

    • maxoxam41 profile image

      Deforest 5 years ago from USA

      Is it learning a language or having predispositions to communication, or an open mind? When I learned English, French, Spanish and a little bit of Chinese, my whole class did. How many of them did travel, did migrate in another country one, two (to be generous and optimistic)?

    • American Romance profile image

      American Romance 5 years ago from America

      When a person comes to America he is expected to learn OUR language! End of story! Racism may have something to do with language but it would only be for the reason we resent others accepting benefits and jobs with no desire to assimulate as our forefathers have!

    • THEHuG5 profile image

      THEHuG5 5 years ago

      I think that racism not only comes from people being ignorant of other cultures but also from people just plain not wanting to learn about other cultures. People who are content with being racist have no desire to change their ways a lot of times.

      With that being said though I do believe that learning new languages is a definite step in the right direction. It is a shame that American aren't encouraged to learn other languages in school like people in other cultures. Since there's really not much we can do about that right now though people should try to travel as much as they can so they can be exposed to people who aren't like them. As someone who's been abroad I know that you don't have to be fluent in a language to learn about its culture. This is a great hub. Voting up, interesting and useful.

    • ChaplinSpeaks profile image

      Sarah Johnson 5 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina

      Very interesting Hub! Thinking about US public education, it is unfortunate that foreign languages are not taught at all in some elementary and middle schools. The public schools are focused on high-stakes standardized tests, resulting in a "teaching to the test" philospohy. Educators can't "waste time" on such subjects as foreign language, art, music, history, science, because they have a bottom line to meet on math and reading scores. Meanwhile our students suffer and are not prepared for college or life in general.

      I like the idea of adding the foreign languages back in, and maybe some race relations classes as well?

    • samanthamayer profile image
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      samanthamayer 5 years ago from New Zealand

      Thank you, Jeannie! Let's hope so. :)

    • Jeannieinabottle profile image

      Jeannie InABottle 5 years ago from Baltimore, MD

      This is a really interesting and well written hub. I believe you might be on to something. If we understood other languages better, we would understand other cultures and accept each other more. Great hub and voted up!

    • samanthamayer profile image
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      samanthamayer 5 years ago from New Zealand

      Peter Leeper - you're welcome! It was an interesting hub. :)

    • samanthamayer profile image
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      samanthamayer 5 years ago from New Zealand

      ithabise, I do see your point - most definitely, we can be receptive of other cultures, without knowing their language. I am a half-Filipino living in New Zealand and always accommodated foreign exchange students from all over the globe in my family home, while growing up. My step-father is also Norwegian. Hence, I always considered myself open to other cultures and perhaps more understanding of them than my fellow New Zealanders. However, what I found when I traveled to Costa Rica - not as a tourist but as an exchange student living with a host family - was that what I did know about foreign cultures was far more insignificant than I'd realized. It was just as they say, the more you know, the more you know you don't know. After that, practicing my Spanish and eventually becoming fluent really helped me to learn more about Costa Rican culture and enriched my understanding and appreciation far more than I can put into words. So, I suppose I'm a little biased. ;)

      You make a good point about America, I did do some research and read many hubs, although I may have to revise my point about it more. I didn't mean to come across as thinking Americans have no excuse for racism - I know that's just some people's perception.

      I still believe, however, that languages have infinite worth. Even if much of the racism exists between speakers of the same language, appreciating any other culture more broadens people's world perspective on the whole. I suppose though, as long as ignorance exists, so will any "ism". Which sounds like forever. Thank you very much for your comment!

    • Peter Leeper profile image

      Peter Leeper 5 years ago from Londonderry, New Hampshire

      Thanks for the reference!

    • ithabise profile image

      Michael S. 5 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      As you said, language is a part of acquainting new culture, but it is a very small part of the solution to racism. We can be receptive of new cultures without knowing the other language. Further, racism is a heart issue. You mentioned the U.S. having less of an excuse with racism considering growing Hispanic population. I think it's a little beside the point. Some Americans do know Spanish; but the issue here is an illegal immigration one. Many Americans are feeling forced to concede to a new culture that is forcing itself into the country. Multilingual nations do enjoy a better cosmopolitan flare, and that's good. But it doesn't mean there won't exist racism. Again, you said it--it's only a small part of the solution--but the bigger explanation is why speakers of the same language demonstrate racism, like the oppressive racist history in America. It's not a language issue; it's a heart issue. Unfortunately, racism--ism in general--will always exist. Thanks for the read.

    • samanthamayer profile image
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      samanthamayer 5 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks Kimberly! Will do. :)

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      kimberlyslyrics 5 years ago

      Great Job! What a topic to launch hubs, you'll fly from here, your latest follower, just holler if you need anything at all

      Kimberly [and prey]