Rethinking the “Foreign” in “Foreign Language”
Dr. Roger Anderson, Assistant Professor of International Languages & Cultures, Central State University
Editor’s Note: The OFLA Board has been discussing changing our association’s name in order to remove the word “foreign”. This process would require a change in our official documents including our certificate of incorporation, insurance and banking and it will impact the association financially. Therefore, the board must determine how to move forward with our mission and vision while respecting the work of those who came before us and were responsible for creating the name and logo.
The turbulence of 2020-21 has taught us that we must critically examine how our identities, our ideologies, and our work impact society’s most vulnerable or marginalized members. Now is the time for critical self-reflection.
Are “foreign” languages really foreign?
For the Ohio Foreign Language Association, critical discussion is needed about our organization’s identity as educators of “foreign languages”.
As an association of Ohioans, “foreign” is problematic. We know that language operates on many levels. On a legal level, foreign means of a different nationality. To the U.S., it means that the person or thing is not of the United States. It is out of place from where it belongs. It does not really belong there, or does not fully belong there.
We must ask ourselves: are the languages we teach foreign languages? Do they not belong in the United States, or in Ohio? In other words, are our languages not used by Americans?
While we educate learners in many languages, let’s focus only on Spanish, French, and Arabic, or those I know best.
The United States is only second to Mexico in terms of number of Spanish speakers anywhere in the world and may become the largest in the near future (Lyons, 2020). Concerning French, among the earliest European explorers and settlers of North America were the French, who left behind a lineage of French Ohioans (Ohio History Connection, 2021) and numerous place names across the state, and the U.S. (Wikiwand, 2021). Regarding Arabic, Ohio’s sizable Arab population ranks it 8th in the U.S. (Arab American Institute Foundation, 2019). Arabic users keep up with news breaking locally and nationally through (American) outlets written entirely in Arabic (OhioinArabic.com, 2021), just as users of other languages likely do as well.
For OFLA, framing these and other languages we teach as “foreign languages” inadvertently distorts demographic and historical realities about our country. Put simply, it foreignizes languages that are not foreign. Doing so comes with damaging implications. Worst among them is it marginalizes and delegitimizes the people (both American citizens and non-citizens) who use these languages.
(FYI: the United States has no official language, even if English is de facto (Kaur, 2020). This remains true even if individual states, like West Virginia, adopt measures to officialize English (U.S. English, 2020). Some cities are following suit, including one in Ohio (Associated Press, 2005). Ohio, as a state, is not. Conversely, other states- Massachusetts and California- have recently repealed their English-officializing policies, recognizing its marginalizing impacts (Kaur, 2020). Regarding the “foreign”-ness of a language, even if a polity officializes English, it only renders other languages unofficial, not foreign. Adopting such policies do not eradicate these languages, but only marginalize and alienate these bilingual citizens and residents.)
Ohio may rank in the top ten least diverse states in the U.S. by one recent ranking (McCann, 2020), yet it is a cultural ecosystem compared to other societies of the world that are comprised of one race, one religion, and one language. The Ohio Department of Education assessed that English Language Learners in Ohio schools represent 110 different home or native languages (Ohio Department of Education, 2020).
Let’s also not forget that English is not native to North America. Nor has the United States ever been a monolingual country, not before or after violently dispossessing indigenous peoples of their land or enslaving humans to cultivate these lands. (George Washington’s Battle of Fallen Timbers near Toledo should be known by all people living in Ohio, as should Ohio’s history of the Underground Railroad). To imply the languages of these peoples were -and are- foreign, is ahistorical and unnecessary. “OFLA”, by its very moniker, makes this implication.
Harming English Language Learners (ELL’s)…and ourselves
This terminology also harms ELL’s. If English is the only non-foreign language in the U.S., then the language of ELL’s does not belong here, and by extension, neither do they, not fully, until their “foreign” practices are abandoned. In a paradigm where all non-English languages are “foreign”, then English monolingualism is required to avoid being tainted by the “foreign”.
Encouraging monolingualism among our ELL’s is the exact opposite of Ohio and U.S. interests in a hyper-globalized world. Educators and society broadly should recognize our ELL’s as invaluable social capital whose contributions to our classrooms and communities cannot be counted. How fortunate the U.S. is to contain a sample of humanity’s diversity! What an advantage! We should support these learners’ bilingualism and the communities that sustain it. (Yes, they should learn English, and do. But with equal enthusiasm, ELL’s should have opportunities to maintain and develop their native/home language[s]).
As alluded to in OFLA’s mission, success in today’s hyper-globalized world necessitates skills to engage interculturally, internationally. For evidence of this reality, look no further than to a global pandemic that will end only once all humanity is secure from the virus. If Ohio and the U.S. provide no kindle for ELL’s linguistic spark, it will never blaze into its full potential. What a loss for the ELL and for us all.
OFLA, encouraging… monolingualism?
Monolingualism is the antithesis of OFLA’s mission. According to the OFLA website, its mission is that, “Every Ohio student will be proficient in a second language, which is essential to a world-class education” (Ohio Foreign Language Association, 2021). (The term “foreign language” appears in OFLA’s strategic plan).
Ironically, if OFLA positions the languages we teach as “foreign”, one message we teach our learners is that the skills they are developing in our “foreign language” classrooms have no application inside the U.S. This message is patently false. Why blindfold our learners to opportunities within Ohio communities to interact with users of their language/culture of study?
Languages other than English belong in Ohio and in the USA. They are not exclusively foreign. We, Ohio educators, must be the most thoughtful on issues of language, culture, and human diversity, and their strongest advocates across Ohio. If we frame our languages as “foreign”, if we talk about them this way or let such references go unchallenged in our schools, we endorse a view that English is native and all else is foreign. Such an endorsement also normalizes monolingualism and undercuts bilingualism, the latter of which is the very goal of our labors.
I urge us to seize this historic moment of societal renewal and invite thoughtful exchanges on the proposal to replace “foreign languages” in Organization of Foreign Language Teachers with “world languages”.
Proposing the “Ohio World Language Association”
Echoing the “world-class education” of OFLA’s mission, the term “World Language” was defined by an ACTFL position paper (ACTFL, 2017). It is ironic that ACTFL, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, has not led on this issue. Both organizations have a long tradition under their current monikers. Yet tradition alone is never a sufficient justification to resisting change. Were it so, no social progress would have been made in the 20th century.
OFLA underwent a similar name-change when it outgrew “Ohio Modern Language Teachers Association”. It did so to become inclusive of more languages and more members beyond teachers (Ohio Foreign Language Association, 2021). Even the Ohio Department of Education, which sets standards for “World Languages and Cultures”, added the word “Cultures” to them in 2020 to better reflect its work (Ohio Department of Education, 2021). OFLA should have similar conversations. It is time we “say what we mean and mean what we say” (Dostilio et al., 2012).
OFLA members should be extremely proud of the work we do in our communities. Yet we must continue to grow. We need to recognize when we have outgrown constraining versions of ourselves and to shed them. I would love to greet colleagues at a future event held by the Ohio World Language Association.
ACTFL. (2017). What is a World Language? Retrieved from https://www.actfl.org/advocacy/actfl-position-statements/what-world-language
Arab American Institute Foundation. (2019). Yalla Count Me In! Retrieved from https://yallacountmein.org/states/ohio
Associated Press. (2005). Ohio city declares English official language. Retrieved from https://www.cleveland19.com/story/3755364/ohio-city-declares-english-official-language/
Dostilio, L. D., Brackmann, S. M., Edwards, K. E., Harrison, B., Kliewer, B. W., & Clayton, P. H. (2012). Reciprocity: Saying What We Mean and Meaning What We Say. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 19(1), 17-32.
Kaur, H. (2020). FYI: English isn’t the official language of the United States. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/20/us/english-us-official-language-trnd/index.html
Lyons, D. (2020). How Many People Speak Spanish, And Where Is It Spoken? Retrieved from https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/how-many-people-speak-spanish-and-where-is-it-spoken
McCann, A. (2020). Most & Least Diverse States in America. ().Wallethub. Retrieved from https://wallethub.com/edu/most-least-diverse-states-in-america/38262
Ohio Department of Education. (2020). Profile of Ohio’s English Language Learners. Retrieved from http://education.ohio.gov/Topics/Student-Supports/English-Learners/Research/Profile-of-Ohio-s-English-Learners-EL
Ohio Department of Education. (2021). World Languages and Cultures. Retrieved from http://education.ohio.gov/Topics/Learning-in-Ohio/Foreign-Language
Ohio Foreign Language Association. (2021). About OFLA. Retrieved from https://ofla-online.org/about/
Ohio History Connection. (2021). French Ohioans. Retrieved from https://ohiohistorycentral.org/w/French_Ohioans
OhioinArabic.com. (2021). Ohio in Arabic. Retrieved from https://ohioinarabic.com/
U.S. English. (2020). U.S. English Efforts Lead West Virginia to Become 32nd State to Recognize English as Official Language. Retrieved from https://www.usenglish.org/u-s-english-efforts-lead-west-virginia-to-become-32nd-state-to-recognize-english-as-official-language/
Wikiwand. (2021). List of place names of French origin in the United States. Retrieved from https://www.wikiwand.com/en/List_of_place_names_of_French_origin_in_the_United_States