I don’t like the word ‘choice.’
So, when I recently asked someone I know well to consider an action that would help us potentially contain the cost of sending our children to a private multilingual language immersion school and that person responded by asserting that the $20,000 per year we’re paying in tuition is “your personal choice”, I was already writing this blog entry in my head.
The reason I don’t like the word ‘choice,’ whether we’re talking about language choice or some other choice is simple: There is no such thing as choice, at least not in the way I believe 95, perhaps even 99 percent, of people use, and misunderstand, the term.
Inaccurate assumptions about choice
Smuggled into the word choice are deeply held – and fundamentally inaccurate – notions of individual freedom as well as an abstraction of individuals from the social circumstances in which they live.
Choice is always bounded, limited, determined and profoundly repercussive.
Unfortunately, far too few people recognize this, which is why I would always like to see at least one modifier, preferably more than one, placed in front of the word ‘choice.’
You don’t have to reflect very long, or very deeply to grasp how problematic the idea of free choice is.
None of us “chooses” the social, economic, political, cultural and historical conditions into which we’re born. Similarly, none of us chooses whether we’re going to grow up in poverty or in opulence, or which race, ethnicity or sex we’ve been born to and the social forces which will so deeply affect our lives as a result of factors largely beyond our control.
Choices made for us
Similarly, none of us chooses the language circumstances into which we are born, and what decisions [I much prefer the term “decision” to “choice”] our parents, and, equally important, our society, make in terms of the language(s) we will grow up speaking, using, learning as well as those that we will not grow up speaking, using, or learning.
Those choices are largely made for us, by other people.
I very much wanted to tell the person who responded to my request for indirect assistance in reducing our costs of tuition for our daughters at the Colorado International School with the “it’s your personal choice” response, that I didn’t “choose” the dominant, monolingual English ideology that permeates American society, an ideology that has turned America’s public education system into a depressingly efficient language killer.
Nor did I choose to devalue multilingualism and multilingual education in the U.S. such that just .004% of public schools here offer language immersion.
Familial language loss
Nor did I make the choice to grow up in a subtractive language learning home, one in which my German father “chose” not to pass on his bilingual heritage to his kids. And my father didn’t “choose” the anti-German sentiment in the U.S. that was still quite strong in the 1960s. Nor did he “choose” to be born German.
Neither did my father, nor I, “choose” to create the historical ideological edifice of assimilating monolingualism that dominated U.S. culture in the 1960s. Refreshingly, I can say that I see some limited and anecdotal evidence of change on this front: Many immigrants, in particular, those with higher education levels, appear to be rejecting the idea that one’s family “must” give up one’s language in order be “truly” American.
Finally, I did not choose the repercussions we are being forced to pay as a result of swimming against the monolingual English stream in the U.S. The most profound of these: The high individual economic costs my wife and I are paying in order to ensure that our children grow up as bilinguals with high abilities in speaking, reading and writing two languages. Our “own” costs are a direct result of a society that clearly doesn’t value multilingualism enough to invest the money required to develop, grow and foster – via its public education system – a deep and wide societal multilingualism that includes not just members of minority language groups but members of the dominant fundamental language group as well.