Contextualizing the Need to Speak to and in the Other

“[T]he recognition of the need to speak other languages offers strong competition with which Classicists have difficulty competing. On the other hand, the public’s current emphasis upon the basics is prompting curricular reform which underscores the value of so-called ‘solid’ subjects such as Latin and which reemphasizes the relationship between a knowledge of Latin and better understanding of one’s own language.” – Helen P. Warriner, Associate Director for Languages, Virginia Department of Education, 1979, Foreign Language Teaching in the Schools — Focus on Methodology.


Latin in contemporary education is either dying or undergoing a noteworthy rebirth, depending on when you catch up on your Google News alerts. But beyond delightful local celebrations and hand-wringing jeremiads, one occasionally discovers an article offering claims sadly suspect or misinformed. Anne is probably right about the #ExposeChristianSchools issue (I haven’t looked too far into it), but she’s mistaken when she says this:

“Knowing Spanish would be an extremely useful skill. It would increase my employability, yes, but I also live in an area with a large Hispanic population. Knowing Spanish would substantively improve my day-to-day ability to navigate relationships with those around me. If I knew Spanish, I could more easily set up playdates for my children and more effectively make Spanish-speaking parents at my kids’ public school feel welcome.”

Despite the conventional wisdom that we or our students need Spanish (more so than other languages), we must check our privilege and ask ourselves:

1. Why did a scholarly study of find that very few job postings requested Spanish? Why were 99% of employers posting high wage job opportunities and 95% of those posting low wage ones confident that potential employees did not explicitly need Spanish to serve their clientele? Why did 89% of social services and 90% of healthcare employers feel likewise? Why isn’t there more data for a claim so many find self-evident? 

2. Why did the media trumpet a study which claimed Spanish proficiency was hot on the job market, though the study acknowledged that “bilingual workers are predominately required in lesser-skilled positions,” lumped Mandarin- and Arabic-based job opportunities with Spanish ones, and claimed as remarkable the discovery that only 1.5% of “highest prestige” jobs requested proficiency in a second language? Why did more exhaustive contemporary studies note  “a small wage penalty for the average bilingual working male?” How could research find that those who speak Spanish in the United States earn less than monolinguals if Spanish language interactions were so prevalent and economically-incentivized in the United States day to day? Why did the same researcher who wondered where “all the high-paying jobs for Spanish speakers” were reiterate his findings in a recent publication and not show data harmonious with the New American Economy claims?

3. What should be gleaned from the drop in Spanish usage in Hispanic (or, if one prefers, Latinx) households even in major metropolitan areas? How have the Siblings Castro become such unique and inspirational figures in American politics and such prominent members of the Hispanic community when their gifted activist mother did not make her sons learn Spanish? Why did they study Latin in high school? Why is their low competency in Spanish seemingly not a problem to many Hispanic voters? Why do a majority of American Hispanics feel that speaking Spanish is certainly not a sine qua non for Hispanic identity?

4. Why have Hispanic populations historically often been suspicious of bilingual education, requesting English-language instruction for their students? Are we aware that mastery of English is necessary for the average person seeking economic success in the United States, as well as internationally in many fields? Why are privileged families the ones pushing for expansion of bilingual programs? 

”I’m very angry,” Ms. Salsedo [who wanted her children in English-speaking classes] said in Spanish through an interpreter. ”The school is supposed to do what’s best for the kids. The school puts my kids’ education in danger, because everything is in English here.” – as quoted by Samuel G. Freedman, New York Times, July 14, 2004

5. Why does mastery of English correlate to higher wages, while fluency in Spanish ultimately does not, with German in recent years being more valuable for the average American? When English is the lingua franca of the world, and 60% of English words have their roots in Classical European languages, should the greater concern for American students be mastery of a global language?

6. When American students need Latinate and Hellenic academic English to succeed in post-secondary education, why don’t we pay attention to data that shows that students exposed to Classical languages possess performance benefits in rigorous academic settings?

7. Can the prevalence of racism explain all the low economic value of Spanish fluency when cultural signifiers embodied by Mexican restaurants and Hispanic music have experienced high crossover penetration into the markets of a predominantly white nation? Is racism against Hispanics the cause of the low economic value of Spanish when Hispanic students are increasingly more likely to attain higher education? Is racism against Hispanics the cause of the low economic value of Spanish when Hispanic intellectuals often have to decry the idea that a Latinx/Hispanic identity is rooted in knowledge of Spanish?

8. Is Anne really unable to reach out and connect with her Hispanic neighbors when spoken English is not at all foreign to the diverse Hispanic communities of the United States, or is she engaging in mere rationalization?

More tragically and tellingly, she says this:

The academic nature of a period that shut out women, the poor, and those of other races, cultures, and ethnicities while promoting a colonialism that was based on a perceived superior intellectual capability is vastly overrated.

To be charitable, Anne is probably grossly misinformed, not malicious or willfully ignorant. She surely isn’t aware that white men taught the Classics to American figures such as Phillis Wheatley and Benjamin Larnell partly to demonstrate the intellectual capacity of all ethnicities.

What of Benjamin Banneker, who was noted in an earlier post here for having considered it wise to teach himself Latin and Ancient Greek? Did he waste his time as a dupe of an oppressive educational scheme which hopelessly shut him out even though he eventually was able to directly upbraid Jefferson and publish well-regarded astronomical tomes, becoming an icon in American and African-American history?

In racist, sexist, classist, or otherwise bigoted eras (hey, like today!), Classical learning has been used by those set against such collectivist thinking, even as a way to demand a seat at the table of social power. Banneker was not some aberrant case, an exception to defy a stereotype. Anne must not be aware that when black communities in the United States set up schools of their own, they taught Latin and Ancient Greek, doing so very, very well (arguably better than many white contemporaries).

Does Anne really wish to imply that the promotion of Latin or other Classically-oriented studies is merely a relic of colonialism? Does she think that the Latin studies undertaken by the Siblings Castro were missteps rooted in a colonialist educational framework? Was Maya Angelou duped by colonialism into believing that her time studying Latin made it “easy to comprehend the structure of language?”

Anne must not be aware that the study of Latin has been pursued and celebrated by American radical intellectuals such as Malcolm X and Minister Louis Farrakhan

“Although Latin is a dead language, Minister Farrakhan reports that Latin language forms a significant amount of the vocabulary of English and is thus worthy of extensive study by Black Muslims.” – via Hakeem Muhammad on Truth to Power, 2017

Is Anne aware that much credit for the revival of Latin in Christian schools is rightly ascribed to Dorothy Sayers, who identified as a woman? Is it unfair to say that a woman graduating from advanced education in 1920 faced greater oppression than a woman in 2020? Did a Classically-oriented educational system shut her out, or did she become a leading voice to later generations by means of that system?

It’s important to note that scholars such as Theresa Austin have posited that white lawmakers defunded Latin education in minority schools specifically to deny them access to advanced opportunities. What the racists did explicitly, modern thinkers do unintentionally by denigrating proven tools for success.Anne seems upset over her education; perhaps it had its deficiencies.

But the baby goes out with the bathwater via her perspective, which flouts the wisdom of many outside of the culture that nurtured Anne (and which she views as regressive and xenophobic). 

Part of what Anne seems to be unintentionally doing is contributing to the rewriting of American history such that Latin and Ancient Greek aren’t the heritage of diverse Americans. Americans of African origin and ancestry were both shaping this country and mastering Classical tongues long before my ancestors showed up in the States (no offense to my ancestors, but I doubt they arrived masters of the Classics). She also seems to be underestimating the value of Classically-oriented studies for appreciating the depth of her shared cultural heritage with her Hispanic neighbors.

Those of us with privilege often aren’t aware of our privilege. Anne in studying Latin was exposed to the building blocks of advanced English, to the building blocks of the Romance languages, and to a vast heritage at times inspiring and at times hideous that lives on in our legal codes, architecture, medical terminology, pop culture, etc. There is a gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged which has an impact on their ability to navigate society. While those in marginalized communities are again looking at varied approaches to Latin and Ancient Greek as a way to obtain vital linguistic tools, many of those who grew up in privilege are publicly deriding such tools (to be fair, Anne seems open to concerted morphological instruction).

This is no small issue: those of us with privilege steer educational communities. The administrators and lawmakers listen to us. What we demand for our students often shapes what the marginalized have in trickle-down form.

Perhaps Anne’s educational experience was indeed sub par and has held her back from numerous opportunities to attain higher education, maintain lucrative employment, appreciate multiculturalism, and reach a diverse audience with her written words. This post hopefully will not misinterpret or misrepresent Anne’s strongly-worded sentiments, but facts must be stated and data must be examined. The study of Latin has innumerable benefits for American students. The study of Spanish also has merit, but we must not yoke its educational prospects to mistruths and unexplored intuitions about its economic and social value. And when encountering neighbors seemingly dissimilar to us in one way or another, we should just try to welcome them into our schools and homes regardless of how perfect or imperfect our words seem to us.   

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