At ReDefiners World Languages, we talk a lot about the benefits of learning another language. Learning another language helps you improve your career, succeed academically, and make it easier to travel.
However, many people don't realize that language learning can help you fight back against racism.
Since the death of George Floyd last year, an anti-racist movement has grown in the United States. Anti-racism is the idea that it’s not enough to simply not be racist; you have to actively examine your beliefs, biases, and prejudices towards people of other races and dismantle your incorrect beliefs. By doing so, we can dismantle systems, privileges, and practices that reinforce the idea of white dominance.
Unfortunately, many white people are against the idea of anti-racism, especially for children. Their beliefs generally follow one of the following ideas:
They think that racism existed back in the 1950s and 1960s, and it doesn’t exist anymore.
Racism has never existed, and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) are “playing the race card.”
If we stop talking about racism, it’ll go away.
Kids are too young and innocent to hear about racism.
All of these beliefs are false, and I could write a post about why they’re incorrect. But that’s a discussion for another day.
The fact of the matter is that our world is becoming increasingly diverse. At one point, the vast majority of people in the United States were white. This is no longer the case. You or your kids likely know people who speak other languages or are of a different race, whether it’s at your workplace, your children’s schools, your house of worship, or your neighborhood.
Because of this, we have to find a way to live together peacefully. We can’t continue living in a society where most people are excluded in some way because of their race. Not only is this not fair, but a healthy society can’t function like this. We need to find ways to make sure everyone has their fair share of opportunities.
There are many ways to combat racism, such as through education and discussions. What you might not have considered, though, is that language learning can help combat racism because it provides plenty of opportunities to learn about other cultures and interact with people of different races. Both of these things will help you to expand your horizons and challenge your beliefs.
Language learning helps you to combat racism in more ways, though. Let’s take a closer look at some of these ways:
You learn more about other cultures.
Language and culture are tightly intertwined, to the point that you can’t talk about one without talking about the other. To know how to use the language properly, you have to understand the cultural expectations. For example, when you meet a new person, how formal is the interaction? Are there differences in how you interact with your friends vs. your family vs. your boss and coworkers? Do people tend to crack jokes, or are people more serious?
Knowing the answers to questions like these will help you to know what’s expected of you. And by understanding how to interact within the culture, you can gain a better understanding of it.
2. It helps you to keep an open mind.
To get the most out of your language learning journey, you need to keep an open mind and not rely on stereotypes.
If you’re having a hard time keeping an open mind, remind yourself that even though this way of life might not make sense to you, this culture is someone’s home. What you might think of as “foreign” or “strange” could be someone’s valued tradition that’s been passed down from generation to generation.
If you learn something about a culture that you don’t understand, you have other options besides defaulting to stereotypes and prejudices. For example, if the other person is someone you trust (like a friend or family member), you might be able to ask questions respectfully. If it’s not appropriate to do so, you can do your research when you get home. Make sure the information is from credible sources, such as a museum or a cultural center. Either way, encountering unfamiliar things in another culture doesn’t have to be scary, confusing, or threatening. View it as an opportunity to learn more. Who knows, you might be surprised at how many similarities there are between your culture and theirs.
On a related note, remember that you are a guest in this culture. It might be strange to you, but it’s significant and special to the other person, a part of their identity. Think of it this way: how would you behave if someone invited you over to their house for dinner? Would you insult the home décor and gag at the sight of the food? Or would you use your best manners and be gracious to your hosts? It’s the same way when you interact with a different culture. You might not completely understand everything, but a few polite manners go a long way.
3. It provides opportunities to make friends with people of all races.
To learn a new language, you have to use it. And the best way to do so is to talk with native speakers. They can model correct pronunciation and grammar, and they can answer your questions if you don’t know the right word to use.
Regardless of the language you speak, the more time you interact with someone, the more likely you are to make friends with them. Friendships are a powerful way to dismantle racism because they force you to confront your prejudices and biases and see the humanity in people who are different from you.
In college, I had to learn a foreign language as part of my degree plan. For a variety of reasons (including my local demographics), I decided to learn Spanish. My university was very diverse, and I met many native Spanish speakers while I was there. I’m still friends with many of them today.
These friendships are the reason why I can speak Spanish so well. I had plenty of opportunities to use what I was learning, which helped me retain the information.
I learned way more than how to speak Spanish, though. I learned about how my friends live their lives and how their experiences shaped their beliefs, and we often had deep conversations because of these differences. For example, some of my friends were DACA recipients. Some were first-generation college students. Some of them were immigrants from other countries, and others were first-generation Americans. All of them had to navigate two different cultures and languages. They had to speak English and navigate American culture at work or school, and they had to speak Spanish at home and navigate their cultures of origin.
These are very different from my lived experiences. The middle-class town I grew up in consisted mainly of white people. My family had immigrated to the U.S. decades ago. As a white person who’s a native English speaker, I never had any trouble navigating American culture or predominantly white spaces.
Despite these differences, we all kept an open mind and asked questions to learn more. As a result of this open-mindedness, we all walked away with a better understanding of each other’s perspectives.
Because of these friendships, it’s easier to see the nuances in a group of people instead of considering them as a monolithic group. Racism and prejudice are so prevalent because we ignore or overlook any differences between members of the same group. For example, if one person commits a crime, it’s easy to jump to conclusions and think everyone in the group would do the same thing.
Thankfully, learning a new language provides plenty of opportunities to talk to people of different races and develop new friendships. Once you make friends with people of other races, it humanizes them. You find commonalities, and you realize that you have more in common than you first thought. Understanding this will make it easier to reduce your prejudices.
4. It gives you a better understanding of their community’s struggles and triumphs.
In my experience, developing friendships with people of different races has been an immense privilege and an excellent educational experience. As I was learning Spanish, I developed the courage to speak it with native speakers. Just like with any friendship, the more we talked and spent time together, the more we told each other about personal things, like our struggles. And just like with any friendship, you want to do your best to support your friends in their challenges. To maintain your friendships, you need to be as open-minded and empathetic as possible.
By developing this empathy, your friends will feel safe enough to tell you about their struggles, regardless of whether they’re related to race, gender, work, family, health, etc.
If you’ve had people open up to you about their experiences, especially when it comes to race, then you should feel honored and privileged. For many BIPOC, race is a painful, traumatic topic to discuss. Unfortunately, many have endured trauma because of their race. They might have been the victim of police brutality, or they might have witnessed a loved one being harmed or killed at the hands of police. They might face threats of deportation, or they might have had a loved one deported. They might have been the victim of racial profiling or discrimination. Too often, BIPOC have been discriminated against or mistreated due to their race.
On top of these existing threats, BIPOC have also had to endure a rising hate crime threat. In 2020, there were over 8,000 hate incidents, and over 60% were racially or ethnically motivated.
To combat any problem, you have to listen to the people who have been most affected by it. However, you must be careful. It’s not fair to ask BIPOC to educate you at the cost of their mental wellbeing. And not everyone reacts in the same ways. Some don’t want to talk about these experiences because they bring up a lot of intense emotions and memories. Others want to talk about what happened to bring awareness.
By learning a new language, you can show that you’re trying to learn more about them and their culture. This increases the chances that they will tell you about their experiences. However, it’s always best to let them talk about these experiences on their terms. If they decide to discuss this with you, it's time to sit down, be quiet, listen, and validate. Don’t try to play “devil’s advocate,” don’t try to get them to see things from the other person’s point of view, and don’t downplay or minimize what they experienced. Support your friend and validate their experiences.
If they choose not to discuss their experiences, respect their decision. By accepting their answer, you’re showing them that you respect their boundaries, which builds trust. Regardless of whether people talk about their experiences or not, you need to earn the trust of others to understand their challenges and triumphs on a deeper level.
5. It makes you a more effective advocate for change.
There’s no doubt that race relations need to change. As white people, we have privileges that our BIPOC loved ones don’t. Most white people are more likely to listen to other white people for information on race relations, even if they don’t have accurate information.
To effectively advocate for change, though, you have to have accurate information. And one of the best ways to do so is to become fully immersed in another culture and learn the language. Once you do so, you can speak on these issues with more credibility because you’ve witnessed the problems and injustices firsthand. Having accurate information is the only way to resolve these injustices.
Sometimes, problems like racism can seem overwhelming and too difficult to solve. However, with the right solutions, we can unlearn racism, confront our prejudices, and equip the younger generations with tools for success. By learning a new language, you can learn more about other cultures, keep an open mind, make friends with people of all races, and gain a better understanding of a community’s struggles and triumphs, which will ultimately make you a more effective advocate for change. It might not be easy to confront and dismantle racism, but it’s possible with the right solutions.
If you’re interested in learning a new language, ReDefiners World Languages can help! We offer online courses in English, Spanish, Mandarin, and Arabic for kids and adults. With our classes, you’ll learn the language, as well as its cultural influences. For more information, please visit our website or email us at email@example.com.