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There are no “language people”

Updated: Feb 28, 2020

The widespread moniker "language people" outsources language learning to an elite class and keeps scores of people from discovering multilingualism at its intersection with various forms of disability.


By David Gramling


One of the most damaging, infectious ideas about language is that there are, among us, “language people” and “non-language people.” That proficiency at languages is a rare but nurturable gift, like pole-vaulting, or being an opera tenor. That those who have a knack for learning languages, and for using them confidently, are also the best-suited for dealing wall-to-wall with the work of global communication, cybersecurity, and diplomacy, while the rest of us hope for the (uneventful) best from their stewardship, or ignore them altogether. Such linguistic outsourcing predominates today and has gained credence among Washington-consensus free-market cosmopolitans, despite pleas from commercial and politicalleaders. Those who grow up with a disability, as I did, often get squeezed out of this equation too early on.


The “language person,” however, is a colonial fiction forged in a twentieth century ambivalent about the decline of its cultural aristocracies and their classicist educational virtues. During the early Cold War, these aging multilingual virtues were crammed into a new portfolio of pragmatism—as high-stakes stealth skills in the service of national security brinkmanship. Since the wane of the Cold War, the image of the “language person” has further ceded its remit to the kind of three-shift, high-precision language-surveillance work that has put would-be idealists like Reality Winner in prison without bail. Too many of these certified “language people” have ended up imprisoned—or worse—for no other underlying cause than the linguaphobia that drives our society’s strong, but ultimately vague, feeling about languages.


Raised in the cloak-and-dagger mid-phase of this historical sculpting of the “language person,” I wasn’t any more especially suited to being one of them than were the other neighborhood kids. In fact, some might have judged me less suited. While “getting into” languages is a widespread turn of phrase suggestive of a clever hack or a break-in, for me, becoming attuned to them was mostly a fluke. My gateway into world languages was, of all things, disability.


These days I work in about six or seven of them in any given week, with the help of several assistive technologies. I get along pretty well in this ostensibly polyglot preserve despite a visual disability that means I can’t recognize people’s faces from more than 15 feet away. Back in the 1980s, when I had my first shot at literacy, I couldn’t read more than 5–10 pages of normal-size print text without nearly passing out from the strain and private anguish. In what was, at the time, my one and only language, English.


By age 11, when everyone around me in Reading class was learning to make their grudging peace with the un-spellbinding next hundred pages of Mr. Dickens and his 10-point serif fonts (I blamed him for the font, not Penguin Classics), I had to figure out another way to get by and feel adequate in language. To feel the world’s language making me more alive, not less—to not be afraid of what language could do. In my September 1987 classroom, liking language certainly wasn’t going to be in the cards if that meant breezing through pulpy, sixteenmo-format novels, and passing quizzes that buttonholed me about what minor protagonists were wearing in Chapter 11 (sans-culottes!). I knew my classmates were doing that, but I just couldn’t.


Around then though, something else nudged me into language unexpectedly, something that made early-onset linguaphobia less inevitable than it already seemed to be for most kids in my sixth-grade row. It wasn’t the new Apple IIE computers—proudly propped like crown-jewels in a windowless room in that near-windowless school. It wasn’t poetry either. It was French, that most inscrutably unpromising of middle school ordeals. The world’s worldliest language made its first volley to me, not from the squinty page of some sweeping Nebraska-plains prose narrative, but from a single yellow 8.5x11 mimeographed handout that, because of its blessed brevity and finitude, I could at last physically read—aloud and slowly as you like, and without sensing the imminent failure-to-achieve I’d come to expect from reading.


I was Charlie Bucket opening a Golden Ticket, not quite knowing what reward it promised. I sat at that little desk in Central Massachusetts, looking at the yellow sheet, repeating to myself: J’ai onze ans. J’ai onze ans. J’ai onze ans, until I had it down. Until I had it down better than anything else I’d ever had in the world. Which is to say, until I for the first time believed that what I was saying and how I was saying it, in any language (including English), were mine and true. It was a kind of prayer—less intercultural than cosmological, less about access to the foreign than about egress from a spiritual coil. There I was, in the crucible of Ronald Reagan’s landslide reelection, of AZT and Miami Sound Machine, of Euro Disney and Wrestlemania III. J’ai onze ans. J’ai onze ans.


Mind you, I had little conscious love for France or Frenchness, and the prospect of traveling there seemed like something people on The Price is Right did, not me. My sixth-grade French textbook had something in it, I think, about the beauties of the Massif Central, but I didn’t hunger for that, not expecting to be able to see it well enough to enjoy it anyway. But that first mimeographed sheet—its list of months, ordinal numbers, and pat phrases—were my key to the world. No mysticism, no religion, no “character education” could have been better suited for keeping me in the game of desiring adulthood, when so much else was quite literally hard to see clearly.


No one had planned or modeled for me this strategic gambit across the great multilingual expanse. My American Irish grandfather, who had the same disability, failed out of high school as a freshman. My path could have been similar. Instead, here I am, translating Turkish poetry and German prose, reading in Italian, French, and Portuguese, speaking in Spanish, writing fiction in English, and learning Ewe and Levantine Arabic. Not bad for a kid who grew up bringing a telescope in his schoolbag every day to read the chalkboard with.


Which is why it surprises me to reflect on the fact that the momentously important Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and section 504of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, are these days widely interpreted as providing disabled students (and more importantly, sometimes, their parents and guardians) with the right to waive, or substitute, their foreign language requirements at school. Too easily, we are shooed out of being “language people,” too easily, “language people” are interpreted as a small cohort of the “gifted and talented.” In the 1990s, this interpretation of the ADA had been primarily applied to students with learning disabilities.


But in today’s exactingly high-stakes educational settings, where the race to the top means austerity measures for some and not others, language-learning waivers have quietly and unevenly expanded to comprise multiple forms of disability, including visual ones like mine.

While disability-equity advocates have long been promoting models that ensure “universal design” for general education classrooms, some these efforts have unwittingly privileged English-only techniques and guidelines. Foreign language programs have often struggled to scale up their materials-design for these important purposes of equitable access.


This is a perfect storm for monolingualism to win yet another battle it has no business winning. Following Donald Trump’s open mockery of disabled people, now is the time to set the record straight about who counts as a “language person,” and to look hard at why and at what age we label people that way, if ever. Subtle and not-so-subtle cues of linguaphobic framing and monolingual “fragility” are everywhere. And yet these are routinely in conflict with people’s profound and enduring yearnings to grow multilingually, to throw their hearts into friendships and solidarities that go beyond their native languages, to chance upon language love when least expecting it.


Americans are nowhere near as monoglot as the shaky statistical metrics claim—I learn this in daily conversations, often without any intention of asking. When so-called “monolingual” older working people find out I’m a professor of German, they urgently tell me about learning Japanese to communicate with their new son-in-law, or having another honest go at Spanish, because they often passionately feel that non-Latinx Americans should, for goodness sake, know it by now. These “monolingual” learners, conservatives and liberals alike, don’t consider themselves “language people.” And they give themselves quite a hard time when they don’t make the progress they feel they ought to, wondering what it is they’ve been doing wrong. They’re tempted to say, “It’s just not for me.” More alarmingly, the abundant messaging around them corroborates this nagging hunch.


What, they ask, do I as a “language person” suppose is the best route back into learning, into feeling renewed pride in their commitment to becoming, and remaining, worldly in more than a single language. They want to know what my hack is—“language people” have got to have one up their sleeve, haven’t they? Lately, I’ve been trying to avoid responses like “keep on keepin’ on” or “get thee a tandem partner.” They’ve heard these before and find them unpersuasive, disingenuous. They want to have something to show for their efforts, so they might have a better shot at striking up new friendships and solidarities in language(s) other than their first or second.


And they usually do have far more to show than what they give themselves credit for. And it’s usually quite a bit more than just the racist “mock Spanish” of Donald Trump. The majority of Americans’ desires and motivations for language learning are as strong, and as complex, as mine have ever been. And yet, they would never call themselves “language people,” like most of my relatives would call me. Sometimes I just want to hand them that old yellow mimeographed handout from sixth grade and say, “Read it aloud until you love it; take your time.” But then I realize cannot hand them my disability too.


In her lovely book The Unthinkable, Amanda Ripley ponders why it is that the US has opted to invest so heavily in a minute class of experts responsible for managing crisis-response who, for all of their wondrous equipment and finely-tuned and clandestine protocols, will simply not be within range quickly enough when something really bad happens to the rest of us. Their existence is therefore practically irrelevant, when it counts the most.


It’s a similarly illogical picture, too, in the linguistic outsourcing business, which does not trust normal people to be and become language people, alongside the elites who’ve been raised for that purpose. So let’s cast off this idea of “language people” altogether, because it’s never served any human being’s interests particularly well.


Language, after all, is not quite like sports or dance, with players and dancers, even though these are also embodied forms of being, like speaking is. Though I do believe that everyone is in point of fact always somehow a dancer, an actor, an athlete, a musician, a healer, a mourner, a teacher, and a creative writer, I’m making a more modest proposition about language. Which is that everyone is already, without any further nurturing, a super-expert at language, having worked harder at this complex, abstract, and yet essential monster of the human condition over their decades alive among fellow speakers than they have at almost anything else, including their chosen careers.


Anyone who signs off on characterizing themselves or another as “not a language person” is denouncing and disavowing this life-long language work, and they’re doing it for a reason that ultimately has more to do with brute expediency than with languages. In my case, had someone in 1985 taken languages off the table for me, based on their benevolent assessment of my disability and its implications, I would have had neither the means nor insight then to second-guess them—and to defend the wild, lyrical future that was waiting for me there.


David Gramling is a scholar of monolingualism and multilingualism and an Associate Professor of German Studies and Second Language Acquisition & Teaching at the University of Arizona.

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