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My Foreign Language Manifesto

Having written the following piece this afternoon for a "faculty forum," I want to repost here because, you, know ... "more bounce to the ounce."

There are hidden benefits to learning a foreign language: one of them, it teaches humility. You can't learn a foreign language without risking making a fool of yourself, unless you're only interested in learning to read it. But in moments of humility, even humiliation, real learning takes place, as the correct word or phrase is burned into your memory. Fluency grows out of these "real life" situations (another in the long list of reasons why study abroad is so important).

Like math, language is a "vertical" discipline, meaning that you build on what you have learned before. Students come to college with years of math behind them, which they build upon at the university level; we, on the other hand, often teach students languages ex nihilo (OK, ab origine). That's why I think a two-year requirement is reasonable: if kids were studying languages in elementary school (at a time when their brains' are hyper-receptive to them) or in high school, then a requirement wouldn't be necessary, mere proof of competence would suffice.

Another good reason for learning languages is to stimulate the brain's language center. Maybe we're remiss if we exercise other parts of the brain while ignoring the part dedicated to language learning. Think of a body builder: she might look silly if she had muscular arms and shoulders, but spindly little legs. Perhaps this analogy is de trop, but ...

Language learning should be fundamental, like getting a basic grasp of math, history, writing or science. Learning a language exposes you to an alternate way of interpreting the world, a fundamental human need in times of "globalization." My students ask, "why is grammar so complicated?" I say, because our thoughts are complicated, and we need structures to reflect that complexity. Certain things are common to all languages (as Noam Chomsky says), and that's why we can learn languages other than our mother tongue. But each language has its idiosyncrasies, which reflect unique ways of interpreting the world.

I think too much emphasis is put on pragmatism in our educational system. We want to see immediate usefulness for our learning. We often go so far as to link everything we learn to some economic benefit. But if we think about investment bankers, we can learn a lesson. For them, there was a clear benchmark for success: making money. If you made money for yourself, and for the people who invested with you, then you were successful. If you lost money, you were a failure. What is wrong with this picture? Well, certain ways of making money screw others over, and can even wreak havoc on the entire economy (I'm glad that hasn't happened). Investment bankers were blind to different ways of thinking (e.g. let's not merely make money, but let's try to do it in a way that is cognizant of communal values). How does language tie in? Learning foreign languages makes us change the way we think about things, it teaches us that there is always more than one way to think about something.

It's cliché (and I'm tired of the same old clichés, we need some new clichés), but there is a difference between being trained and being educated. If you're trained, you can perform certain tasks, but when those tasks become obsolete, then you need to be re-trained. But when you are educated, you learn how to learn, which is beneficial regardless of your vocation. The mission of the university should be to educate, not to train, and in my opinion, that should include the obligatory (and something more than superficial) study of languages other than English.




Good thoughts! So learning another language (in this age of globalization) makes us world citizens who are humble yet educated. I like that!

December 2018



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