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Why are we so scared of languages? Posted by on Oct 30, 2013 in Language Learning, Trends

With Halloween fast approaching, there are plenty of things creeping around out there to scare you: horror movies on TV, creepy decorations on your neighbors’ homes, frightening costumes… the usual fare.

But foreign languages—nothing scary about those, right? But then there’s this.

In short, Daphne High School in Daphne, Alabama decided to replace its retiring Spanish teacher with an Arabic teacher. The students are excited, but some of the parents… not so much. While one parent claimed that the school was trying to “indoctrinate” their children to the Muslim culture, another went so far as to say:

This is America, and English is our language, and while I understand the alleged premise of offering Arabic at our high school, I don’t agree with it […] It is not just another language; it is a language of a religion of hate.”

Sure, we could point to the events of the last decade as source of this fear of Arabic, but this reaction is not unique to a single language. One Colorado principal who recited the pledge of allegiance in Spanish to promote diversity was labelled by a handful parents as “un-American.”

It’s not contained to the last decade, either.  In 1986, nearly 150 Pennsylvania residents protested against Korean language signs posted in their city. The signs were paid for and hung by the Korean community simply to help elderly Koreans in the area who struggled to read English.

So why are some people scared of foreign languages?

I don’t have all of the answers to such a heavy question, but there’s a lot of words that instantly come to mind: ignorance, xenophobia, misunderstanding, conditioning, and so on. Those are some harsh words, but I don’t believe people who react this way toward languages are inherently bad people. Assuming that these people are ignorant and racist is just as bad as assuming that Arabic speakers are terrorists. It seems to me that their fear of languages comes from how they are conditioned (by the media, family, friends, teachers, etc.) to perceive a culture. The ironic thing is that language itself could be the tool we need to “re-condition” them.

We cannot, nor should we try to, disassociate a language from its culture. But where we fail is in presenting the minority as the majority. Sure, it can be intimidating to witness a conversation and not understand a single word of it. But it’s far more intimidating if you’ve associated that language with the “bad guys”. When we identify terrorists as the face of Arabic-speakers, or illegal immigrants as the face of Spanish-speakers, or whatever else it may be, we breed the ignorance and xenophobia I mentioned earlier.

But our preconceived notions about languages and cultures create self-fulfilling prophecies. The more we shut out a language and a culture, the more foreign it seems, and the more we have to fear. This cycle prevents us from making any progress toward understanding other languages and other peoples. When we can communicate and collaborate with our global counterparts, we can break the cycle.

Where we go wrong is in identifying a foreign language as an obstacle to our own culture and values, rather than an opportunity to learn about other ways of thinking and living. Introducing new cultures and beliefs will not “erode our society,” it’s what founded our society in the first place. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

We need to prevent this fear from developing in our children, the way Daphne High School is doing. Superintendent Alan Lee hopes to expand the language program to all schools in the district, offering language learning opportunity for all K-12 children. By exposing our children to new languages early on, we open up the doors to new cultures. Not for indoctrination or initiation, but for exploration and enrichment.

The question that remains for me, though, is how can we assuage the fear of languages for those who have already been conditioned to view it as a threat?

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About the Author: meaghan

Meaghan is the Marketing Communications Manager at Transparent Language. She speaks enough French and Spanish to survive, and remembers enough Hausa to say "Hello my name is Meaghan, I'm studying Hausa." (But sadly that's it).


  1. Sam:

    Thanks for the article. As a Palestinian Christian American, I find the fear of Arabic to be quite irrational. Most Americans don’t realize that two thirds of Arab Americans are Christians. And that Arabic is closely related to Aramiac, the language Jesus spoke. So it is ironic that they immediately associate it with terrorism. It’s as if they forget that Jesus Christ himself is middle eastern.

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