Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Linguistic Controversy and an Arabic Pledge of Allegiance

This past week, one of the biggest news stories circulating in the United States has been the revelation that a school district in New York was forced to make a public apology after a student recited the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic as part of the school's celebration of "National Foreign Language Week". For the full story, you can read these articles by the BBC and CNN.

If you're unfamiliar with the Pledge of Allegiance, it's basically a short statement of loyalty to the United States of America, as represented by the country's flag. Just like most other American children, I put my hand over my heart, faced the flag, and recited the pledge at the beginning of each school day between the ages of 5 and 12. I don't remember being taught it, but it's so ingrained in my memory that I'm pretty sure I'll be able to recite it until the day I die! I cannot tell you why we did this, because nobody ever told me, but it seems to be simply because it is considered an important American tradition. 

In the case of this particular school district, children apparently still recite the Pledge of Allegiance each day in high school as well. The foreign language department had the really clever idea to honor "National Foreign Language Week" by turning what is normally a boring routine into a learning experience by having a student read the pledge over the intercom system during the morning announcements in a different foreign language each day: Arabic, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, and French

Sadly, they never got past day one because students and parents complained, reportedly because they were offended because they had lost family members in Afghanistan or were Jewish. Which makes no sense at all, but does provide an impressive display of ignorance. 

Arabic is often considered a group of languages, or macrolanguage, because it is spoken across a huge number of countries and features a diverse range of dialects. Why should the use of a particular language ever offend anyone? The student wasn't reciting hateful speech, they were using one of the world's most spoken languages to recite a pledge to the United States of America, a melting pot of cultures. 

It is horrible that these families had lost family members due to the war in Afghanistan, but it doesn't make any sense that the Arabic language would offend them. Arabic is one of the least spoken languages in Afghanistan, with such a small number of speakers that it is considered "threatened" by the Ethnologue. But even if it had been the official language of Afghanistan, Arabic would not have killed their family members - the brutality of war did.

I have not found any article that explains the reasoning behind the Jewish families that complained. The only guess I can make is that they are equating Arabic with Islam and if so, are generalizing and stereotyping an entire religion and around a quarter of the world's population instead of considering that only a small minority of Muslims has ever harmed Jews, or anyone else for that matter.

If that is their argument, then we might as well get rid of all the Romance languages too, since they evolved from Latin, which was used by Christians who persecuted Jewish people long ago. A good portion of the English language is composed of words of French origin as well, so I guess we all better zip our lips, and quickly.

Sadlly, this is not even the first time this has happened! Other schools have gotten in trouble in the past when students recited the pledge in Spanish because it was "un-American", despite the fact that the United States has no official language.

In any case, the saddest thing of all is not the ignorance of those families who chose to complain about an opportunity for their children to learn about foreign languages and cultures. Instead, it is the fact that the school district apologized for trying to teach the children about the world. Schools should never have to apologize for introducing children to new concepts, new cultures, and new ways of thinking. A sound understanding of foreign languages and cultures will never spread hatred as quickly as sweeping generalizations and ignorance.

Do you agree or disagree - should the school have apologized? Tell us what you think in the comments below remembering to keep it respectful!