From the Community | Learning “minor” languages — should the Stanford community bother?

Sept. 5, 2021, 5:57 p.m.

To learn a foreign language is to make a statement about the world in which we wish to live. “Should I take a course in Cantonese or Python?” At a place like Stanford, the answer can be: “I will learn both!”

Declining enrollment in language classes across American universities, including Stanford, is a worrying trend we must actively combat. Learning new languages empowers people to access other cultures, communicate with strangers, participate in business and foreign policy, and even connect to their own family history. However, the diverse array of language offerings at Stanford are often threatened by budget cuts, and it is unfortunate that it takes public outcry and student mobilization to protect them. For example, following passionate activism by students and alumni, the University agreed to offer two Cantonese courses this year, addressing widespread fears the whole program would be eliminated.

Beyond languages like Arabic, French and Spanish, Stanford also offers a robust number of so-called “less commonly taught languages” or LCTLs, ranging from Tibetan, Khmer, and Punjabi to Lakota, Quechua, and Hungarian. Stanford was also the first institution outside Hawai’i to offer university-level Hawaiian language courses. Unfortunately, many students are not aware that these options exist.

Some Stanford programs like Cantonese, the language of a diaspora 80 million strong, or Yup’ik, spoken by Alaska Natives, began after extensive student lobbying. But when the university deprioritizes language learning, LCTLs are first on the chopping block.  When administrators worried that the COVID-19 pandemic would harm university budgets (though the endowment actually increased in 2020), lecturers for “minor” languages became especially vulnerable, as demonstrated by the termination of Stanford’s longtime Cantonese instructor Dr. Sik Lee Dennig.

LCTLs already face a tough environment. Lack of national government support, discrimination by those who speak majority languages, and a perceived lack of value often drive a vicious cycle, where a “minor” language program is defunded, then reported as “unpopular,” and eventually, outright eliminated. These structural barriers to language education deny heritage language learners the opportunity to reconnect with their culture and their families.

The Value of Learning New Languages

Yet it remains incredibly worthwhile to learn foreign languages, “minor” ones included. Starting from childhood, speaking more than one language has significant cognitive benefits. Researchers find that multilingualism can improve one’s ability to multitask and is correlated with superior executive function and greater social understanding. Contrary to some political leaders’ beliefs, children are quite capable of absorbing and acquiring multiple languages; learning other tongues does not harm their English ability.

However, language learning is more than just vocabulary and grammar. It enables us to understand cultural contexts and gain an appreciation for performing arts, culinary traditions, and the written word. This knowledge can also smooth business interactions in the boardroom.

Learning a less common language can further enrich one’s worldview with nuances, metaphors, and sounds absent from the dominant few UN languages which achieved hegemony through globalization and homogenizing linguistic policies. Tonal languages such as Taiwanese Hokkien or Vietnamese have been described as “melodic” and “musical.” In Polish, “bułka z masłem” (lit. a roll with butter) is in fact “a piece of cake,” or something easy. Appreciating this beauty deepens our human experience and makes the world more vibrant.

While younger generations who have grown up in the United States speak English natively, some older generations find non-English languages a necessity. Imagine a family sitting at the same table, but unable to express their feelings because they don’t share a common tongue. Will a child know that in Persian, a “tight heart” means that her grandmother misses Iran?

From Hebrew to Uyghur, languages spoken over the dinner table are intimately tied to a community’s holidays, customs, and traditions. Culture is mediated through language: limited access to stories, proverbs, and teachings hobbles one’s ability to actively shape and maintain those traditions. While identities are malleable, and the cultures of our grandparents do not fully define who we are, learning a “minor” language is an essential step towards elevating the humanity of all those who speak it and countering cultural erasure.

A United, Diverse and Multilingual America

Instead of falsely portraying multilingual Americans as unpatriotic or contending that they are “betraying” the country for speaking languages other than English, we should consider them an asset. Multilingual residents are an important corps of workers who help America to engage with the world, communicate liberal democratic ideals to a broader international audience, and assist new immigrants in better integrating here at home. America’s historical diversity has helped it defeat totalitarian regimes, forge multilateral alliances, and build lasting international institutions of peace.

Linguistic and cultural fluency are vital parts of a 21st century skill set. A truly diverse nation will incorporate a broad array of citizens, matching their scientific prowess and creativity with the ability to operate in languages other than English. A progressive linguistic and foreign policy would actively encourage Americans to enhance their empathy and their competitiveness by learning new modes of communication. A positive environment that encourages diverse language learning will bring more Americans into the classroom, while ensuring that LCTLs continue to be taught. An America that thrives in the coming decades will celebrate its citizens’ multilingualism and the broader cultural knowledge that language skills enable.

Stanford must invest more resources into language education rather than cut programs, and student participation is needed more than ever to protect this essential component of the University. We invite you to enroll in one of the LCTL language classes and go beyond the minimum language requirement. You can also join student and alumni-organized campaigns to safeguard language education at Stanford.

Stanford should be a place that welcomes all languages, and the institution’s ambition to create “Inclusion, Diversity, Equity & Access in a Learning Environment” (IDEAL) can only succeed if the heritage and languages of many communities are honored and included in the University’s curriculum.

Note: Every language mentioned in this op-ed has been offered by the Stanford Language Center. We invite you to explore the course offerings and build our multilingual society.

Kevin F. Hsu ‘09 Earth Systems and International Relations, ‘11 M.S. CEE, has worked in polyglot Singapore.Ryan Talvola is an undergraduate economics student at UCLA.Maciej Kurzynski, born in Poland, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Chinese.

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