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Global

The Case for a Language Beat, Chapter 1,455

Carol Azizian is an arts, entertainment, and features reporter for The Flint Journal, which published her story, “Language of the Future,” in today’s edition. She visits an Arabic class at the local community college, where students get to eat hummous and learn the Arabic word. All very fun, sweet, feature-y.

Toward the middle of the hummous-eating, Azizian writes:

But it’s not the easiest language for Americans to learn.

OK, I don’t know if this sentence, which is frankly stupid, belongs to Azizian or an editor. Why is it stupid? 1) “Americanness” doesn’t make a language more or less difficult. Native English-speaking, however, is a factor. So is monolingualism. So is a person’s age. But a person’s nationality? Not relevant.

So let’s rewrite her sentence:

But it’s not the easiest language for native English-speaking adults to learn.

Better, but only a smidgen so. Even if this weren’t a meaningless banality, it puts the burden of difficulty on the language, not on the monolingual adults, where it belongs. The sentence doesn’t explain why the difficulty, whether you pin it on the language or the learner. And it doesn’t explain how the instructor, or the students themselves, will attempt to circumvent those issues.

The bigger problem — and here I fault her editor — is that it’s an underwritten sentence. It’s the footprint on top of the heart of the story. Azizian should be sent back to the bench. She missed the guts of it. The drama. Yeah, there’s drama in this stuff. How adults crash against something that’s bigger than them. How they can’t fake it. You can’t bullshit grammar, ya know? Grammar, vocabulary, penmanship: so forgettable, so ignorable, so egg-headed. Here it creates real friction. Can you parse it? Can you remember it? Are you really that much of a moron? Maybe I wouldn’t be such a moron in Spanish, says Joe Six-pack, but I’m a total idiot in Arabic, etc.

But let’s pretend that maybe Azizian didn’t write that sentence, that she wrote something like, “The adults, none of whom have studied a language other than English, grapple with the intricacies of making Arabic words bravely. They hate making mistakes. But they know they’ll improve, slowly.” Or something like that.

Even if she hadn’t written that, she wrote this:

Ghattas, who is of Palestinian descent, said he’s teaching the students how to read and write and speak simple conversation. The spoken language has many different dialects. For example, he said, people from Egypt speak in a different dialect than those from Tunisia.

Another missed opportunity. Between those two mundane facts — a Palestinian teacher and multiple dialects — is a whole world of politics, economics, and decisions. Someone who knew more about language would ask, what dialect are you teaching them? Why did you decide on that one? How do you justify teaching that dialect instead of this one? Maybe he won’t teach them dialects, but instead teach them classical Arabic. Someone who knew about language would know that Mr. Ghattas’ students would be hard pressed to direct a taxi or order food on the streets of, say, Cairo if they spoke the Arabic of the Koran.

The Flint Journal doesn’t have the only editors and reporters in America who set the discourse about language in America back with stories like these — and don’t realize what they’re doing.