How Will the Coronavirus Pandemic Impact Bilingualism and Multiculturalism?
People around the world in rural and urban areas are becoming more aware of two things: 1) how interconnected our world really is, and 2) how to become more socially isolated. With the rise in COVID-19 cases and its relatively high mortality rate, fear of contagion has put into clear focus these two perspectives. With this fear, many feel uncertain about their future, the economy and the governments’ ability to adequately address the negative economic and social outcomes from this pandemic. While we stay home and watch through our screens the global impact from the coronavirus, we are both physically and psychologically becoming more insular; first attending to our immediate well being and then that of our local community.
Isolation Juxtaposed with Integration
Over the past several decades, the global economy has become more integrated through a network of specialized supply chains and selective disintegration in the design and manufacturing process of production. With an increase in economic globalization with its intricate web of production of goods and services, so too have people become more globally minded. People from all around the world have become much more mobile as a result of greater flexibility and opportunities to travel around the world. A positive outcome from this mobility has been the realization about how small the world really is and how important it is to have the language skills and multicultural understanding to work with others from diverse backgrounds. This realization, in the wake of economic globalization, has been an important factor for why more and more families and individuals have begun prioritizing language learning to become bilingual or multilingual for themselves and/or their children.
Globalization succeeded in increasing overall global economic activity. It helped give rise to a larger middle class in many lesser developed countries while also creating fully developed economies in other countries like South Korea. However, globalization has also had significant downsides. Environmental aspects aside, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, societies around the world have been questioning the unequal economic growth and increasingly unequal distribution of wealth that global economic forces have propelled. In response to rising inequality, over the past several years, we have seen a rise in nationalism and native populism around the globe with increased efforts to curb free trade agreements and promote greater levels of protectionism in certain industry sectors. Not coincidentally, along with this rise in nationalism and populism, we have also witnessed an increase in its extreme form through ethnic, racial and religious ideologies of superiority or dominance. Consequently, around the globe, these extreme forms of nationalism in ethnic, racial and religious ideologies of superiority have also made its way in varying degrees into some government policies and civic life whereby restricting various freedoms, rights and social status of various minority groups. Subsequently, the coronavirus pandemic is like fuel for the flame of nationalism because it has further exposed the economic and social vulnerabilities we have created in our “just-in-time efficient” integrated global market. Unfortunately, it has also exacerbated xenophobic tendencies and attacks.
Once we get through the hardest part of this pandemic, many experts believe that globalization with its specialized and selective disintegration of production will likely not return to the same level as it was prior to the pandemic. With vulnerabilities in key industry sectors and the lack of redundancy to address these vulnerabilities, countries will likely take a more active role in implementing protectionist measures on more select industry sectors. Likewise, with greater expertise and ease in technology use to enhance remote working and productivity across regions, business travel and leisure tourism may not come back to the levels they once were for quite some time. Such drastic changes now and in the near future in globalization and frequency of mobility raises the question:
Will society continue to see the value in bilingualism and multicultural understanding?
The answer is yes, it not only should but it must. First, while globalization may shift shapes and alter, economic global collaboration will continue as will the need for trade in imports and exports. Simply put, economies of scales and regional production and specializations in goods and services will ensure the continuation of globalized markets; howbeit, somewhat altered. And while people might travel less due to increased use of technology for remote working, the need for cross cultural collaboration and language skills will likely continue to grow. Moreover, if this pandemic has highlighted anything, it has highlighted the need to have people who can work across languages and cultures to properly assess and effectively collaborate to address potential challenges and dangers in regions of the world before they cause widespread problems in other parts of the world.
In July 2017, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a report, The Commission on Language Learning, at the bequest of a bipartisan group in the U.S. Congress. The report highlighted an article by David Cyranoski in the journal Nature, titled, “Bird Flu Data Languish in Chinese Journals: Health Authorities in the Dark as Warnings Go Untranslated” to demonstrate our risks and lack of preparedness for epidemics if we do not have scientists and specialists capable of interpreting scientific and technical information and data from other regions. In fact, the report stresses the urgency in improving language learning in many languages across all age groups, beginning as early of an age as possible for both our national security and future economic opportunities. The COVID-19 is one pandemic that the world is now having to grapple with on both a local and international level. Yet, with 7 billion people in a global economy, finite resources, a warming climate, multiple regions of instability in the world and ample opportunities for new novel diseases to spread, we must continue to promote language learning and multicultural understanding so as to not only be vigilant in addressing ongoing global threats but also to be prepared for the next global crisis.
Building a Stronger Local Community and Nation
Last but not least, language learning and multicultural understanding is also essential for improving our domestic policies and strengthening our local communities. We are a nation of many cultural and ethnic groups. Not only are we a country that is culturally and ethnically diverse, we are also a country that is linguistically diverse, with 350 spoken languages. Moreover, we are also quickly becoming a majority minority population where no one racial or ethnic group has a majority. This year, we have more children in public K-12 who are of a minority group than we have of white European decent. By 2045, the U.S. population will be minority white.
Despite our diverse population, only roughly 21 percent of the U.S. population actually speaks a language other than English at home. When we look at who speaks both a language other than English at home and who also speaks English very well, we find that number goes down to only 12% of U.S. population. The other 8.6% are likely to be new immigrants who have not yet acquired English as a second language. Unfortunately, a longitudinal study revealed that by the third generation of immigrants, most families will have completely lost their heritage language in favor of English only. Why?
Beginning in the early 20th century between the two World Wars, our nations’ educational system began to systematically eradicate native languages other than English rather than preserving them (including Native American languages, languages from new immigrants and languages spoken by diverse populations in local communities throughout the U.S). This eradication of language and culture was done in the name of nationalism with an attempt to create a singular prescriptive American culture and language by which everyone would assimilate into. The invention of television and movies in the 20th century further promoted the idea of a uniformity of culture and heritage, one that tended to marginalized minority groups who did not necessarily recognize themselves through the images being shown. Unfortunately, this prescriptive erasure of culture and languages only further exacerbated ethnic and racial tensions and further marginalized minority groups across the nation as it demonstratively made their culture and language appear to be inferior to the prescribed norm. Nor did it succeed in creating a unified narrative of a singular American culture because it did not consider the different cultural mix of ethnicity and early experiences of the groups who originally settled in each region and why. For example, Appalachian culture is uniquely different from the North Eastern culture as is the Southwest culture from the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes area. Likewise, distinct urban and rural areas around the United States also have their individual unique cultural attributes. In response to this forced story of homogeneity and marginalization of minority groups, we have seen both an outcry for more inclusive civil rights and a call to reclaim pride in heritage culture and languages.
What “nationalistic ideals” fail to understand is that though our country is racial or ethnically diverse, we as a country are still bound together in a community of oneness by aspirations of freedoms and opportunities guided by the principles and ideals of democracy. Notwithstanding, critics of this rise claim that holding onto an identity other than that of a singular American identity is un-American. However, it is the fact that we can embrace multiple identities about ourselves is exactly what uniquely makes us American. The fact that we can be proud of our ethnicity, heritage and languages while also embracing the values of and pride in being an American is completely natural. After all, identities are not binary, – either,or-, statements about yourself. For example, I am an Appalachian and an Austinite who spent years in Mexico, I am both rural and urban, I am a Spanish speaker and an English speaker and I also speak a rural eastern Kentucky dialect, I am a mother and a professional, I have both Anglo and Native American roots in my heritage. I am proud of each of these identities and so should every other American be proud of their own individual identities. That is the true ideal of being an American; and learning other languages and cultures helps to generate appreciation and respect for this aspect of ourselves and others.
Most importantly, we know that when students are able to maintain their native language into adulthood and feel proud of their cultural heritage, they are also more likely to achieve long term academic success. Minority groups whose languages and cultures are also valued and appreciated are also more likely to be civically engaged. Thus, the ability to recognize and celebrate our differences is something that makes our country and local communities stronger rather than weaker. Language learning, with focus on also maintaining native languages and learning a second language, along with multicultural understanding, are tools to help our citizens gain the skills needed in perspective taking, problem solving and effective cross cultural collaboration needed for our diverse society to be stronger, more collective and productive. They also happen to be the same skills needed to help us address real global problems like global pandemics. Let’s remember this as we continue to advocate and support more access to bilingual/ dual language and other language learning programs in all levels of education for all.