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How to Argue for Foreign Language Instruction

Lucy Ferriss recently mentioned here on Lingua Franca some comments of former Harvard president Larry Summers. He questions the importance of foreign-language instruction in 21st-century higher education:

English’s emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world, make it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile. While there is no gainsaying the insights that come from mastering a language, it will over time become less essential in doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East.

As Lucy noted, this stimulated a Room for Debate discussion with half a dozen replies arguing in favor of foreign-language classes. I certainly do not want to argue against: I wish I could have done more language courses myself. But—I say with a certain trepidation—one has to admit that the arguments given for foreign-language instruction in universities, though advanced with passion, are often rather weak.

Summers questions the economic and political arguments for teaching foreign languages in universities. He is right to do so. You can’t prepare yourself for a future career in diplomacy or marketing by equipping yourself in advance with a random language, because you have no idea where you’ll be sent. Stacie Nevadomski Berdan insists that monolinguals “lose the important human touch and can’t learn or work as effectively as those chatting easily with native speakers, reading local papers, interpreting the subtleties”; but she undercuts her position when she admits in her opening sentence that she has “worked successfully on four continents … despite being fluent only in English.” She never needed to interpret the subtleties.

I’m not saying we must applaud the global anglophone juggernaut. But the contingent fact that English is so close to being a global lingua franca weakens the case for trying to get thousands of anglophone undergraduates up to elementary-school level of literacy in Mandarin, despite the disastrous memory burden its writing system imposes. Drawing on the pool of Chinese native speakers already in the U.S. might be much more sensible.

The most common argument given for studying foreign languages, by far, relates to cross-cultural communication. The Room for Debate discussion overwhelmingly favored this line. Heedless of Douglas Adams’s awful warning (the universal-translation Babel fish “by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures … caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation”), they insist that language learning will promote harmony and understanding. When you press people for details about this, you usually get vague Whorfian claims: With a new language, they say, come new words and thus new concepts, and the opening up of a whole new world.

I don’t think so. I spent years studying French in high school and subsequently, and I know thousands of French words, but I couldn’t cite a single one that has given me any particular insight into French culture or brought me a new idea. Sure, femme means both “woman” and “wife.” Possible insight into culture? Are people in France unable to tell the difference between women and wives, perhaps? No; there are French feminists who draw the distinction very sharply. This whole idea that cultural insights emerge from learning new words is just bunk. Cultural insights come from studying culture.

One of the window-into-culture defenses of language study that Lucy quotes puts it poetically: Anthony Jackson of the Asia Society calls language “the palette from which we draw all the colors of our life.” Perhaps that means something, but honestly, I have no idea what.

To repeat, I’m not an opponent, though commenters below will accuse me of that. Like most educators I feel instinctively that foreign language instruction is a Good Thing. And as a general linguist, I am of course aware of the intellectual value of the insights into language structure you get from attempting to acquire another tongue (though pushing that line leads to defense of Linguistics 101 as much as Spanish 101).

All I’m saying is that to defend foreign-language classes against budget-cutting we’ll need much more serious arguments than vague gesturing toward globalization and wispy talk about the wonder of words.

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