Why Bother to Learn Very Well English? OR, Where Are All the Quechua Majors?

Argument

Learning a language after childhood is very difficult, so difficult that language learners require powerful motivation.

Why then do people learn German? Chinese? French? What pushes them on?

Cultural enrichment is one possible motivation. Intellectual stimulation is another. But then why do so few American high schools offer Quechua or Hausa or Garifuna? Are these languages not culturally enriching and intellectually stimulating?

You might argue that there are levels of cultural enrichment, that German puts you in contact with Western cultural treasures like Goethe for which Quechua has no equivalent. But that’s certainly not politically correct (and for good reason), and I suspect it’s not a sufficiently strong motivation for most German students. How can they know how satisfying reading Goethe in German will be without already knowing German?

I want to suggest another powerful motivation provided by French, German, and (newly) Chinese—a motivation that, I think, is the ultimate explanation for most actual language study that takes place in America and the world: money.

Learning conversational German is much more likely to reap financial rewards than mastering the clicks of a Khoisan language. There are far more employers who value and hire Francophones than hire, well, Fijiphones I guess.

And here’s the secret point of this post: money is also a major motivation for learners of written and spoken Standard American English. Some students appear to have every bit as much difficulty mastering SAE as they would conversational Mandarin. The rules for the written language are arcane (indeed, John McWhorter helped me see recently that written English is almost a different language—many things that are common in writing simply could not and would not be spoken). The accent in the spoken language may be very different from what they grew up speaking. But if they want to get hired by the kind of people who can really reward them financially, they’ll learn it.

That’s why parents who already speak SAE and inculcate it in the home are giving their kids a financial leg up.

Evaluation

I don’t think money is always a conscious motivator for most students and teachers of English, but it’s a powerful one nonetheless. Its place should be recognized and not covered over with a quasi-moral justification for learning to speak the “right” way. The right way could, but for some historical accidents, be very different from what it is today. There’s nothing absolute or permanent about it. If English changes and develops for two more millennia, our language may even reach a form unintelligible to its current speakers.

Why do I bother to say so? Because it’s helpful for those who deal in words all day to know all this, to have some understanding of where their tools come from and how they’re shaped. I get paid to produce words in a certain order for a certain audience. Without a clear sense of the different registers (formal, informal) and sets of rules (yes, different rules!) available to me in my language tool box, I will be that much more impoverished as a communicator of God’s truth.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

Leave a Reply