I received this article this morning about how to thrive or survive as a department of foreign languages. It’s long, but for those interested in the topic of teaching foreign languages, especially in a depression economy, it is worth reading.


NOTE: It was just a few days ago that I was talking with friends who expressed surprise that a language like Yoruba is taught in an American institution. “French or German, yes, but Yoruba?” they wondered. “How is it ever useful to anybody anywhere?Who would use it? Everyone (including the Yoruba people in Nigeria) speaks English anyway.” they said.

Apparently, it is still hard to sell the idea of learning a foreign language that doesn’t come with a “sophisticated” appeal like Spanish or Russian to most common people anywhere in the world. My interlocutors were one American and one African. A day earlier, another friend – this time a Nigerian on the chat messenger – had expressed similar sentiments. He even added a twist of the absurd by insisting that I was working for the CIA. That was the only way he could rationalize a scholarship that affords me the opportunity to teach my language in the United States. He also could not understand why foreigners could be interested in the language.

I think this attitude is a result of a fundamental ignorance of the purpose of learning anything at all, which is simply to gain knowledge. And there is no knowledge that is not power, as that writer Ralph Waldo Emerson puts it. Learning a foreign language gives one access to new ways of looking at the world, no matter how small the number of people who speak the language is. But the Yoruba language is spoken by over 30 million people, and has a culture that has survived hundreds of years and has influenced countless other cultures all over the world from the Carribbeans to the United States’ African American population, and produced one Nobel Laureatte. What is there not to learn about its culture, and language, and people? The lesson for me – if any at all – is in learning more about the importance of linguistic, language documentation and cultural studies. It helps to have something to say while being challenged about the use, or uselessness, of what one does.

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