In most L1 language classes at Yale, you learn to introduce yourself, talk about your likes and dislikes, maybe a few colors and some food. But speaking as someone who has taken a new language every year at Yale, the things you retain are not necessarily the most useful.
One of the first phrases I learned in Mandarin was “Playboy magazine.” I don’t remember anything else from that chapter. In L1 Arabic, apparently, you learn the word for “United Nations” before you learn anything else. In my L1 Korean class, the first question we learned to ask was “Are you Korean?” Since answering yes is easier than answering no, there was a time this semester when the only thing I could confidently say in Korean was “Yes, I’m Korean.” (I’m not actually).
Every Yale College student is required to take a language other than English. Some choose to study their heritage language (the one their parents spoke to them at home), others use it as an opportunity to gain a resume-worthy skill, others continue studying a language they learned before Yale, or begin a new language that they’ve always been interested in. Regardless, language classes teach a lot more than just language. They teach cultures, affirm identities and expose students to new ways of thinking. But if we’re not careful, language classes can also establish the superiority of some cultures while erasing others. Yale needs to think more critically about the implicit curriculum that people learn in its language classrooms and what we assume about the students who learn these languages.
At its best, language learning is a window into someone else’s world. For example, in American Sign Language classes, students learn about access needs of D/deaf and hard of hearing individuals and gain a vocabulary to talk about disability and advocacy. As an ASL student, I learn just as much about D/deaf culture and ableism as I do how to sign. We shouldn’t take the ASL program for granted — it’s the result of advocacy and wasn’t permanently established until 2018, my first year at Yale.
There are some languages which haven’t been granted the same institutional support. Despite the rigor and urgent need for Indigenous language speakers, Yale does not allow students to use Indigenous language classes offered by the NACC to satisfy their foreign language requirement, or even count them for academic credit. What values is Yale implicitly signaling with its course offerings and the way that languages are taught here?
In Yale language classes, the professor might be the only native speaker of the language that the student knows. But the language class setting creates an artificial dynamic in which the professor is the sole arbiter of what is “correct” or “incorrect,” which means that they have a disproportionate amount of power when it comes to shaping student’s perceptions of a language and the culture behind it. Even in North American English, everyone has accents, favorite turns of phrase, different grammar intuitions, or words we don’t pronounce like other people. Imagine how much greater diversity is among languages like Spanish and Mandarin which are spoken across different countries with distinct cultures.
As a Taiwanese American who grew up speaking Mandarin at home, I struggled when teachers tried to change my accent to sound closer to the way people talk in Beijing. I’m sorry, but I’m never going to be able to add 儿 to my sentences organically. Even after my professors stopped trying to change my accent, the fact that the Beijing accent was taught as the “correct” or “standard” way to speak meant that white students would often try to correct me in conversation outside of class. Now, my family in Taiwan thinks I pronounce things weird.
The fact that there are higher prestige and lower prestige accents is not a problem that is unique to the language learning environment — there’s a reason that many students from rural towns in the South consciously change their accent as first years. But the structure of language learning at Yale can spread implicit biases to new language learners.
As an institution, Yale should carefully consider its policies and the implicit signals it is sending to students about what languages and accents are valued. On an individual level, professors should be aware of the different language backgrounds that their students come from and acknowledge that judgments about accents or dialects within native speakers of a language are arbitrary. This might look like exposing their students to different accents, allowing heritage speakers to speak in the way that their families do or tailoring lessons to individual learning goals and current events.
Language learning is an important exercise. But unless students find avenues in which to use their language skills after Yale, vocabulary and conjugation rules will likely be forgotten. The cultural norms and how we were made to feel when we took the language are the real lessons we’ll remember.
This column was originally published in the Yale Daily News. I plan to write more columns this semester which you can find at https://yaledailynews.com/blog/author/serenapuang/