Inspired by Quantum Cloud, Younghyung Chung, 2004 (Source: risknfun.com)

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.

Author Christof Demont-Heinrich

A lifelong interest in language and writing motivated in large part by a desire to learn my father's mother tongue, German, has played a large role in my professional and educational trajectory. I spent my junior year of college studying in Freiburg, Germany. After graduating from Allegheny College with a B.A. in German, I worked as a print journalist for eight years in the Boston area. I moved to Colorado in August of 1996 so that I could attend Colorado State University where I earned an M.A. in English (1998). After a couple years of working as an adjunct faculty member at CSU and the University of Northern Colorado, I began a Ph.D. program at the University of Colorado, Boulder School of Journalism and Mass Communication in the fall of 2000. I completed my dissertation in December of 2005. I started a tenure-track position at the University of Denver in the fall of 2005 where I am now an Associate Professor in the Department of Media, Film & Journalism Studies. My general research interests are in linguistic and cultural dimensions of globalization, transnational and national identity, and the relation between media discourse and hegemony.

More posts by Christof Demont-Heinrich
  • Khan

    Dear Christoff,

    Very interesting observations on free choice. If we buy the argument of complete lack of agency, how is then change is possible. I also feel that most of things are decided but I also think that spaces are created, contested. For instance your blog and academic engagment with promoting multilingualism is one such effort. The point I am trying to make can perhaps be better understood by a very famous analogy. Some person A approached Hazrat Ali ( Caliph) and asked about the question of freedom: ‘ How far am I free” asked the gentlman, The caliph replied to the person standing nearby him. ” Lift his both legs while standing” The person could only lift one. The caliph replied, ‘ you can lift one leg but not both” I dont know if I am able to express my point with clarity or not,

    Khan

  • khan

    Thanks Christof for an interesting post. While I agree with you that there is no such thing as free choice, dont you think choices are contested, created, fought?

    Thinking about my lingusitic trajectory, I was born in a family which was located in a social position where access to powerful languages/ genres/ variety was not an easy possibility and I lived the experiences of navigating my way through such strong institutionalised linguistic hiearchies and regulating mechanism.
    Am I right in concluding that there are always agentive spaces?

    Thanks

    Khan

  • Khan,
    Of course there is always room for agency, it’s not an either/or proposition, as your leg analogy illustrates, though I do not believe it’s always a 50/50 proposition. Often – and I do not think you are doing this – within the various disciplines for which the question of agency/determination is crucial (that’s pretty much all of them), one side, say those who see the world mostly in terms of agency, will paint the other side in such extreme terms as to imply that the other side believes there is no agency, or “the” determination side will imply the other side thinks it’s only about agency. I view human beings as in general (notice I’m qualifying here) being largely directed by the aggregated historical “choices” of those around them. Sure, individuals, or groups of individuals could make up an individual language, but, if no one else makes the “choice” to use it, then no meaningful change happens. I view social change as occurring generally when groups pool their collective agency/power to push for change. Eventually, they sometimes make significant headway, though, often, they do not as other social actors who do not want change pool their social resources to fight the given (linguistic) change turn them back. In short, I lean toward the “determination” end of the continuum, but I do see what is most often limited room for slow social change. Indeed, the question of how we explain social change, or lack thereof, fascinates me — and vexes me 😉

  • Khan

    Thanks very much Christof for taking time to respond to me. Much appreciated by me. Please let me tell you why I asked you the question of agency and social change. In Post-colonial social linguistic studies especially from Asia, Africa there has been over emphasis on historicity and this over emphasis often obfuscates the important roles local elites have played out throught the colonial 18 and 19 centuries. Such scholars simplify very complex struggles between different ethnolinguistic groups during the colonial times. Is it not easy to blame for all the current ills on colonisers? I see the colonial and post-colonial history as very complex involving linguistic contest between different groups. In my doctoral study, what I find very fascinating is that the social actors respond to policy in very complex ways. Most of the time their claims/ sentiments and their personal linguistic practices are at odds. I come to realise that it is perhaps most difficult for me to theorise people’s discursive responce to policy in institutional settings. Hope it makes my point clearer. Thanks once again for the reply.

    • Thanks, Christof and Khan, for an interesting conversation. It’s fascinating to see into which different directions the question of ‘free choice’ can go in two different contexts. Just to add two more ‘layers’:
      (a) I’m intrigued by the way ‘choice’ has become a sacred cow of neoliberalism while actually precluding choice: what I mean is that everyone thinks that ‘choice’ is great and the more choice the better, but excessive (and usually superficial) choice can actually be quite negative: psychologically, there is the paradox of choice that people become increasingly dissatisfied the more choice they have (see Barry Schwartz). Politically, this plays out quite tragically with school choice: underfunded public schools become unattractive and private schools have lots of different bells and whistles … for a tax payer, to be spending a third of your income on education because the public school doesn’t offer languages is extremely unfree in my view – and that in the country that likes to lecture the rest of the world on “free choice” …
      (b) I’m also intrigued by the fact observed by Khan that people mostly say one thing and do another. E.g., most people think bilingualism is great but how many actually go to such lengths as Christof? Or demand that their school provides meaningful language education? Another interesting ‘paradox of choice’ … choosing the talk vs. choosing the walk …

  • Victoria Benz

    But even IF parents actually walk the walk (which is indeed not a given) and enrol their children in a bilingual school, a “choice” is often denied by influential policies, and (tied to them) funding, ideologies, the avilability of bilingual programmes etc. As Monzó (2005) reports, by regulating the provision of information to families and undermining teacher efforts, even parents who actively enrolled their children in a bilingual programme, didn’t get to experience bilingual education. The teacher had to teach in English and was given a consent form to be signed by parents, which said that children would now be immersed in a structured English class. Sad…