During the pandemic, I’m really leaning into podcasts. I love the chance to listen and think deeply about many topics, including language and education. One of my jobs this summer has been landscaping. As I cleared rocks and dug out an old lawn, I began listening to Nice White Parents, a new podcast about public education in the United States.
“Oh my god. She hasn’t been to Paris!”
A poignant moment in the first episode shows a wealthy white woman extolling the benefits of learning a second language to a woman from Puerto Rico, who is already bilingual in English and Spanish. The white woman goes on and on about her apartment in Paris and the joys of ordering food in French. Her inability to see the irony of the situation is painfully awkward. The Puerto Rican woman lets her go on.
Where does this encounter happen? At a fancy fundraiser hosted by a new cohort of white parents at a New York City school, to fund new French language programs. The Puerto Rican mom, who is on the school’s parent-teacher association, helps out at the fundraiser, despite her misgivings. Never mind that many of the kids in the school already speak other languages, such as Spanish and Arabic. Why is French so important?
In this case, learning French seems to be about showing or maintaining privilege and social status. Here in Canada, where French is one of the two official languages, there are different reasons and arguments for learning it. Still, what about the reasons and arguments for other languages?
Why certain languages and not others?
What about learning the languages spoken by neighbours, which in British Columbia include Mandarin, Punjabi, and Tagalog, so that we can connect? And what about learning the Indigenous languages spoken by generations of people who have lived on and tended to these lands and waters, so that we can understand where we are? What would it look like to the languages of our ancestors, so that we can reconnect with our own histories?
Which languages do you want to learn? What is your reason?
I highly recommend the five-part series Nice White Parents. I also welcome recommendations for other podcasts about language, language learning, society, and politics.