What do you consider when you are choosing a language to study? Is it the relative ease to pick it up, future job prospects, for deepening the enjoyment of the place you’re going to travel to? Or maybe simply because it’s the popular language to study right now. But then… what is it that makes a language popular to learn in the first place?
We propose a theory that the trend we often see in language popularity is not necessarily because of any of those fun things listed above, but rather, is in fact an influence of politics. Let’s take a look.
In a recent Harvard graduation speech, former senator of state John Kenny’s advice to those graduates was this:
“With this White House I’d say, buy Rosetta Stone and learn Russian.”
Now, that statement, at least at the time, was no doubt a tongue-in-cheek dig at all the joy that isn’t the ongoing issue/saga of Russia’s alleged influence in the United States, election and otherwise. But if you think the only time Russia was a subject of daily debate for America (and the world at large as a consequence) was in the last year or so, you would be wrong.
During the Cold War, the period where The Soviet Union was the enemy of just about everyone, the language of popular choice for Americans to learn, was Russian. In fact, Russian Studies is an interdisciplinary field covering history, geography, literature and arts, and of course linguistics and the Russian language itself; this subject was first developed during the Cold War, and would suggest that at least in this case, the trend for learning Russian during that period (1947-1991), might very well have been political.
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During the Obama administration, a goal was set for one million Americans to learn Mandarin by 2020:
"If our two countries are going to do more together around the world, then speaking each other's languages so we can understand each other is a good start," (Obama)
This quote is from 2015, and unless you’ve been living in a rock - or don’t look at language trends on a regular basis like some of us do (...), then you have probably noticed the soaring popularity of Mandarin as a favourite language to learn.
Mandarin has been introduced as a study option in many high schools across America, as well as in a number of colleges. Whether this interest has had a knock on effect elsewhere we would not like to speculate. But Chinese has also been seen to be on the increase in other English speaking places as well, namely the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, so perhaps like sheep, the rest of us are following yet another American trend.
Post 9/11 is cited as a period of increased American focus on learning Middle Eastern languages, such as Arabic, Pashtu, and Urdu. Whilst this trend makes sense given the global interest - interference; however you look at it - in the countries of the Middle East since that attack, it is probably fair to say that this interest in languages that originate in that region goes back earlier than that.
There have been two Gulf Wars, what feels like a constant presence in Iraq, and those who might point to a vested interest might look at the 1970s oil crisis for when the American focus on this region really took off. And if you aren’t convinced that there really is an interest in languages of the Middle East for America, then here is a list of the target languages required for an army recruit to be fluent in at least one of, in order to join the American army as an interpreter/translator:
Arabic - Modern Standard, Gulf-Iraqi, Egyptian, Levantine, Yemeni, Sudanese, Maghrebi, Algerian, Libyan, Moroccan, Tunisian; Pushtu/Pashto/Pachto and Pushtu-Afghan; Kurdish - Standard, Behdini (Kurmanji), Sorani; Persian - Afghan (Dari), Iranian (Farsi).
We think you’ll agree, that is a lot of interest in Middle Eastern languages!
Now, call us crazy, because that sometimes is fair, but for America’s proximity to Mexico, it follows that a language that maybe should see an increased political trend in interest, is Spanish. Particularly now, with immigration issues and the proposed wall to define the border between the two countries. There are already around 41 million Spanish speakers in America at the moment, though, so perhaps learning Spanish isn’t political at all, and more an appreciation of the diverse richness of the people that make up the country.
In short, whilst not all language interest is political, politics does appear to influence the choices some language learners are making; the more language the better, we say, whatever the reason for it!