Foreign languages to act as doorway to cultural awareness

Spanish and English teacher Michael Egan helping his students with writing out phrases as they practice saying the sentences out loud.  Students have been working on a worksheet about these phrases since last Tuesday.

Bren Fletchner

Spanish and English teacher Michael Egan helping his students with writing out phrases as they practice saying the sentences out loud. Students have been working on a worksheet about these phrases since last Tuesday.

The summer I traveled to China in order to visit relatives and friends, I found that while the people and food differed considerably from what I was used to in Coppell, China had an odd way of making a foreigner feel at home.


The moment I stepped off the plane, signs with English translations printed at the bottom pointed me to the baggage claim. Walking around the streets of Beijing, I found that when my Chinese was a little too broken for perfect comprehension, switching to English with street vendors worked just fine. When I visited my great aunt, she was, to my increasing lack of surprise, learning English, as well.


Looking back, I realize now that I was wrong. China did not have a way of making foreigners feel at home–just English-speakers.


“We’ve monopolized the global network when it comes to language,” Coppell High School Spanish and French teacher Michael Egan said. “English is the lingua franca, as we would say in linguistic terms, meaning it’s the most widely spread language in the world.”


In 2016, over 1.5 billion people in the world either speak English as their mother tongue or a foreign language. An Italian businessman and German ambassador will most likely speak to one another in English; this is the world we live in.


Whether through historical colonization or economic, social and political dominance, countries such as the United States and United Kingdom thrive in a global culture where their most commonly spoken language happens to also be the most standardized in the world.


As a result, one of the most challenging barriers of communication is rendered practically non-existent for native English speakers. While this advantage comes with benefits, it runs the risk of creating a lack of opportunity and support to learn when one is no longer required to.


Where European students learn and become proficient in an average of two or more languages by age 9, only 18.5 percent of American elementary and secondary students reported learning a foreign language. Since English is the business language of the world and the geography of Europe fosters greater travel than in the United States, opportunities to pursue multiple languages are greater and given a stronger emphasis.


“How many times have you spoken to a friend or neighbor who returned from a foreign trip and was frustrated with a waiter at a restaurant for not understanding them?” Egan asked, bringing to light the irony of being a foreigner in a country, yet expecting its native people to speak your language.


Since English is a globalized language, lesser-used dialects are seen as arbitrary or not as valuable to know or appreciate.


“I think everybody should be required to travel or live abroad at some point in their life, because if they don’t, their scope [of the world] is very narrow,” said CHS Spanish teacher Derryl Lee, who has been able to visit various countries as a result of his work as a language teacher.


With the international turmoil the world has faced in recent years, I have started seeing the potential of the very same lack of understanding for other cultures fostering an “us versus them” phenomenon where people fear what they do not understand.


CHS sophomore Mercedes Hoyos is of Mexican descent and has spent the past 11 years living in the United States.


“My parents faced [discrimination] when they first arrived in this country,” Hoyos said. “They were often told to speak English when they went to the grocery store, and in one incident a while back, my mother was told to ‘go back to her country’ out of the blue.”


In the fast-approaching presidential election, candidates have utilized fear and misunderstanding of other cultures as a means of campaign propaganda, whether through encouraging citizens to be weary of certain ethnic groups or outright labelling them with a set of all too familiar foreigner stereotypes.


This only further drives Americans away from experiencing outside cultures with an open mind and no preconceived notions.


This is where language plays an enormous role.


At CHS, the linguistics department offers a multitude of languages for students to choose from, from Spanish to American Sign Language (ASL) to Mandarin Chinese. Although the minimum language credit is only two years, many students opt to study their desired language for four and achieve mastery, going so far as to enroll in Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) language courses.


In pursuing a second language in high school, these students will also be able to receive exposure to unique cultures and traditions, such as Hispanic Heritage Month or the Chinese Moon Festival.


While simply making an effort to become multilingual may not solve global issues pertaining to race and culture, it holds a great potential to act as a bridge of respect from one culture to another–a bridge that can only benefit us.


Follow Kelly Wei @kellylinwei