The comment questioning Solange’s son’s education finally caused me to realize exactly why I felt so unsettled when people inquired about my second language choice. Too often, people asked the question not out of curiosity, but out of a desire to know why I had strayed from “my lane.” The question wasn’t “Why are you studying Japanese?” It was instead, “Why are you studying Japanese?”

This breaks down people’s derision into two parts. First you, meaning me – a young, unapologetically black woman. Secondly, Japanese – a non-European language that isn’t African. For too many individuals, white, black and everywhere in between, these concepts don’t jive. The question is, why? Why is it that my studying of a language (that for all intents and purposes should be considered useful) is questioned while my white or Asian friends who study Japanese are accepted?

language learning
Photo: Imara McMillan

The lane

I have a hypothesis about this, one that has been forged after many conversations with other POC who study Japanese, or other “unconventional” languages. There is an idea in America, correct or not, that people of color are “others.” We are not white. We have extra melanin, different phenotypical features, and (most importantly for this post) a “culture.” This leaves the “acceptable” languages to study the ones that are related to our “original continent,” and in the more expansive version that the critical commenter clearly doesn’t subscribe to, related to Western Europe. No one bats an eye at a black person studying Igbo, or a latinx student studying Portuguese. But a Chinese-American man studying Swahili? A black woman studying Japanese? That is immediately suspect. Never mind the fact that white students can study any and all languages at their disposal. Because, apparently, while we POC have to stay in our lane, white students are free to take in everything the world has to offer – including languages.

What we are missing

Of course, to continue my unnecessary metaphor, this lane is only relevant if people choose to drive. According to doctoral thesis research by Katerina Watson, African-American students study foreign languages and participate in study abroad programs at consistently lower rates than their peers. The Institute of International Education recently reported that only five percent of students who study abroad are black. To make matters worse, these numbers are low compared to the already low numbers of Americans studying a second (or third) language.

Not knowing a second language closes countless doors. For example, travel. Study abroad, as I am learning, opens your eyes not only to new cultures, but also to your own personality. I have never understood America better than when I was abroad. Having to navigate a culture you are unfamiliar with, being forced to express yourself with a limited vocabulary, and also defend and explain your own cultural habits is the best kind of self-study. Moreover, while it might suck to be the guinea pig, becoming a mini-ambassador for the black community is an important role, especially because anti-blackness is… pretty much everywhere, unfortunately. But you just have to wonder if more black people studied Chinese, if that downright unfortunate commercial would have ever gotten produced.

If my waxing poetic about the marvels of travel doesn’t do it for you, nothing is more convincing than money. In an age where student debt is sky high, especially among African-Americans, knowing (or learning) a language like German could open doors to free European universities. That way, rather than ending up $37,000 in debt (the average debt for an African-American student), for the price of a round trip plane ticket and living expenses you could have a college diploma. In my German example, this would be about $10,540 a year — $540 for school fees, and $10,000 for just living in Germany for 12 months, including transportation, health insurance, room and board. This, compared to my state school, the University of Illinois, where the lowest estimate for tuition, room and board is $30,000.  

Not only could learning foreign language help you save money, it could also help you earn money post-grad. That diploma, connections to another country, and foreign language fluency could be invaluable in a job market that has recovered for white Americans, but still leaves African-Americans with a 9 percent unemployment rate. Because African-Americans are less likely to know a second language, we are being pushed out of increasingly competitive job markets in places like Texas and Arizona where being bilingual is essentially a requirement.

Why are we missing it

Clearly, many studies, papers and other factors indicate that African-Americans are not studying second languages. However, none of the studies I found could concretely say why that was the case. Most schools across the U.S. require them in elementary and high school, so it’s not that students aren’t exposed early enough. Many colleges require foreign languages as a graduation requirement, so it’s not that students don’t have the opportunity. According to the University of Texas, many of the students they interviewed had friends and relatives who studied a foreign language, so it’s not necessarily that there is no familial support. And while some schools don’t offer a wide variety of languages, Swahili and Arabic are staples at large states schools and private institutions alike, so it’s not as though all students don’t have the opportunity to learn a language that is more in line with “their culture.”

I can’t help but wonder if the majority of African-Americans have had experiences like mine. Where their desire for second language acquisition was constantly questioned, both in terms of its utility and its application to their own lives. Where their ability to learn a second language and their ability to excel was questioned. Where they were told, in not so many words, “Your choices confuse us because they don’t fit in with what we think you should do based on your skin color. Since we can’t possibly be wrong, it is you who is out of bounds.” After all, if it happens in the sciences, in college admissions, in gymnastics and in acting, then why wouldn’t it happen with foreign languages?

I am in my lane

Luckily, I have the type of personality where if someone tells me that I can’t do something I’m going to the exact opposite. But the fact is, even if I can stand up to societal pressures telling me to do something different, it doesn’t mean that I should be forced to.  If you, your younger sibling, your cousin or your friend are learning a foreign language, no matter how unconventional, do it with pride. Learning about the world outside of America is a radical act. Intercultural communication is revolutionary. We can get out there, tell our stories and excel in the world. If we do that, then who we are as African-Americans starts to be dictated by us – not by the media – and in turn, we get to control our own destinies.

So no, learning another language isn’t “trying to be white” or “raising our little black boys to be Euro men.” And no, I don’t have to be pigeonholed into studying only “African” culture because I am black. To paraphrase John Legend – Citizen, student, black woman; I am in my lane. And I am going to stay there. 了解?

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