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24.8.03

In the second installment of his language rights series, Scott M proposes that, in addition to educating minority-language speakers in the dominant language, we ought to be requiring dominant-language speakers to learn a minority language. This evens out the costs of learning to communicate, in contrast to the current system, in which dominant-language speakers can get away with not learning a second language much better than minority language speakers, and thus are less motivated to take on the cost of becoming bilingual. Drawing on the fact that people only really learn languages when they have the social infrastructure to use them regularly, he states that the minority language to be taught to the dominant-language speakers should be the one with the strongest local base, rather than the one that is globally "most useful." Thus anglophones living in California would probably benefit most from learning Spanish, those in New Mexico from learning Navajo, and those in Vermont French. There's much merit to this case. However, its superiority over the current "learn a language, any language" approach rests on the (usually justified) assumption that students will remain close to home for most of their lives. However, that isn't true for many of us. By Scott M's standards, I should have been taught German instead of Spanish in high school (though it's notable that my high school offered German and Spanish, instead of the more common set of French and Spanish). But German would have done me less good once I moved from Pennsylvania to upstate New York (I don't know what the most viable minority language there would be -- perhaps Oneida). And given the neighborhood my new apartment is in, I'd most benefit from knowing Albanian. Certainly I could learn a new language (as I'm struggling to do with Finnish -- a language that's surprisingly useful given the number of Finnophones on the message board I frequent), but childhood is a uniquely productive time for such study. Also, there's the problem of what range of mobility is well-matched to one's second language. Spanish will pay off well for a large portion of the country, imposing no additional language cost on me if I choose to move to any of that area. However, if the appropriate second language for my education had been, say, Hopi, I would be faced with a choice of either sticking within a hundred miles of home, or giving up the utility of my second language.

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