Language News

Languages as Cultural Ecosystems and Why Students Should Explore Them

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Dr. Steven Byrd, Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of New England shares why languages are far more than just tools of communication.

By Dr. Steven Byrd, Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese and Director of the Latin American Studies Minor at the University of New England

In the early 21st-century, foreign language learning (and the humanities generally) in the United States has found itself on the defensive. Worrisome terms such as "crisis in the humanities" and "identity crisis" have been articulated in academic literature to describe the decline and apathy of language learning in the country. Ironically, such crises are present despite the fact that advocates of language learning have emerged across the academic spectrum, ranging from areas such as cognitive science to economics to social science to international relations.

Still, language learning has nevertheless often come under scrutiny by students, school administrators, the general public, and even by fellow faculty. Questions such as, "Why bother if everyone else in the world is learning in English?", "How will learning this language benefit me?" or "Can't my smartphone just translate what I need to say?", are not uncommonly voiced to language teachers.

In an age of global import in areas such as economics, healthcare, scientific exchanges, political relations, national security, and so forth, one would think the learning of foreign languages and cultures would be a top priority for US citizens. And, paradoxically, there is a general consensus across US schools, particularly at institutions of higher education, that US students are in need of much more intercultural education in order to be knowledgeable and ethical global citizens, as has been called for by organizations like Oxfam and the United Nations.

Yet, while a vast number of colleges and universities promote this idea in their mission statements, it has often been little more than a marketing tool in some cases, or more inclined toward institutional and/or individual economic competitiveness in others. While framing language and cultural learning in terms of economic competitiveness may make pragmatic sense, this idea reduces foreign languages to something akin to a tool specifically one whose purpose is for economic gain. However, if languages are simply a tool of communication, then students and schools by extension will naturally ask themselves: "Is this tool necessary?" But, think, for example, how the Latin teacher is supposed to justify his or her language of instruction under this type of thinking, despite the fact that Latin has had a rich tradition within Western schools?

Needless to say, revitalization in learning foreign languages is necessary if this subject of instruction is going to be relevant in school curricula in the 21st-century. Under the present circumstances, it is imperative that language teachers find new ways to talk about what languages are and explain why they are important for exploring and learning.

As renowned cognitive scientist Steven Pinker notes in his book, The Language Instinct, language is "one of the wonders of the natural world." As a product of the natural world, rather than a tool of communication, which seemingly reduces language to something akin to the wheel, an ax, or a ceramic, I believe terms such as "cultural ecosystems" are more exact and more exciting to describe and present languages.

These "cultural ecosystems" amount to a universe of words, phrases, grammar, history, and cultural manifestations which have spanned centuries to form, each one distinct yet universal to our common humanity. Furthermore, exploration into this cultural ecosystem allows students to explore similarities and differences between peoples and places, seeing how languages develop independently and also borrow from others, and how they transcend time and space.

Consider, for instance, the origin of the word companion (and its Romance-language equivalents: compagnon (Fre), compagno (Ita), compa ero (Spa), companheiro (Por)) is derived from the Latin cum panis 'with bread'; how the expression arroz com feij o 'rice with beans' in Brazil is the typical daily meal and also a popular expression for doing things with simplicity, while rice and beans in Cuba is called moros y cristianos 'Moors and Christians'; or how darle la vuelta a la tortilla 'to flip the tortilla' in Mexico can also refer to a 'game-changer' or a 'comeback'.

In this globalized 21st-century, creating an explosion of cultural and linguistic curiosity could be nothing but beneficial for the students and educational system of this country. While there is no doubt that economic interests will always be present, it is crucial that language teachers shift their focus on producing informed, ethical, and culturally and linguistically knowledgeable global citizens in our classrooms. Exploring and learning the "cultural ecosystems" of world languages offers a rich perspective into the mind of our common humanity an endeavor that can only enhance the education of our students and of our schools from K-12 through college.

About the Author
Steven Byrd is Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese and Director of the Latin American Studies Minor at the University of New England. He is the author of Calunga and the Legacy of an African Language in Brazil (University of New Mexico Press) and Outras Terras: cr nicas e ensaios (Natal, Brazil: Sebo Vermelho Edi es). He can be reached at