Oberlin Blogs

Foreign Languages

February 1, 2012

Prof. Erik Inglis ’89

Larry Summers recently published an op-ed bemoaning the state of American higher education (hidebound, moribund) and suggesting how to fit it to this modern world (if you guessed 'technology,' you're right, but it wasn't very hard, was it?). The column (like the response I'm writing) is part of a long tradition in our newspapers' pages, and probably almost wrote itself (which is perhaps the most charitable explanation); Mark Taylor wrote a similar piece a couple years ago; it had the misfortune of metastasizing into a book, which was ably and enjoyably taken apart by David A. Bell.

Summers' piece had some obvious comments about re-arranging desks (or are they deck chairs?) and a silly one about the Canterbury Tales. But it was a more wrong-headed suggestion about learning foreign languages that stuck in my craw: "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."

This was particularly aggravating to me since Oberlin has just received major support from the Mellon Foundation to establish a Center for the Study of Foreign Languages and International Cultures. In comparison to our goals, Summers' essay is mortifyingly complacent, attempting a sort of benign linguistic imperialism that expects everyone else to do the heavy lifting. Even if he gestures to "the insights that come from mastering a language," one gets the sense that because Summers doesn't sense the absence of foreign languages from his life, he can't imagine their value. Now, Summers doesn't say that learning foreign languages is useless; he suggests only that they aren't "universally worthwhile." This is a lofty standard: what is universally worthwhile? math? if so, what level--does the calculus make the cut? What about evolutionary biology? And, more importantly, Summers frames his essay in terms of what colleges expect high school students to learn. So that's the true question he asks: should high school students learn foreign languages? And his answer is, probably not.

The Times used Summers' article to create a debate, and drew several respondents who address the utility of foreign languages. These respondents, writing from different perspectives, present a good array of reasons why knowing more than one language is worthwhile. But, academic that I am, I'd add some more.

Perhaps first would be empathy. My spoken French is not as polished as I wish; my spoken German is worse. When I speak in these languages I am keenly aware that I am unable to communicate my thoughts with the clarity and precision of my English. This inability at times creates the sensation of being a forty-four-year-old trapped in the vocabulary and syntax of a twelve-year-old: a voice in my head says (in English), "I know I'm smarter than I sound." This humbling experience can prevent you from underestimating others.

Several of the Times' respondents note that studying foreign languages is essential to learning another culture. Perhaps less recognized is the way that learning a foreign language teaches you a great deal about your own culture. I didn't know how American I was until I spent a semester in France. And it's not just the novel experience of being the foreigner which matters here. It's also the perspective you learn from those who speak another language; getting to see your own culture through their eyes helps you understand it and them. So, while knowing French allows me to follow the current French presidential campaign on Arthur Goldhammer's excellent blog about French politics, I find it even more illuminating to read about the American political campaign in the French press, as in this blog [url no longer active: washington.blogs.liberation.fr] by two reporters for Libération.

Summers might wave all this aside, for this is culture, and he writes with a view to efficiency. But even here he misses the boat. For example, he calls for professors to emphasize collaboration in the classroom, because that's what the outside world values most: "An inevitable consequence of the knowledge explosion is that tasks will be carried out with far more collaboration.... [C]ollaboration is a much greater part of what workers do, what businesses do and what governments do." Foreign language classrooms lead the way in teaching and learning collaboratively. And, more importantly, learning a foreign language fosters all the skills required to collaborate--most notably, the ability to communicate--speaking and listening, understanding and empathizing. While I certainly don't want to to say that learning a foreign language is only worthwhile because it has concrete cash benefits, nor would I deny them. Thus, I also disagree with him on purely pragmatic lines about the value of foreign languages for doing "business in Asia." He sees English as sufficient. But at a time when Apple's consumers are troubled by how its suppliers treat workers in China, it is easy to see how the company would benefit from more staff who spoke Chinese and thus weren't dependent on Anglophone middlemen to let them know what was going on in their factories.

None of my objections thus far get at what I find most bothersome in Summers' essay. Summers writes with a keen assurance that he knows, now, in 2012, what future workers--in 2020 or 2030--will need most, and what they won't need at all. That assumption underestimates each student's unpredictable potential and denies them opportunities they might use. I offer myself as an example here. I just wrote a book on a Jean Fouquet, a fifteenth-century French artist. I usually think of this book as the result of decisions I made in college and graduate school: to study art history, instead of philosophy or anthropology; to study medieval art instead of ancient, Renaissance or modern; to study manuscripts instead of sculpture or architecture; to study art in France instead of Italy or Germany. But that last point didn't depend on decisions in grad school or college; instead, it depends on a decision I made in eighth grade at Dominion Junior High (now Middle School) in Columbus, Ohio. All eighth graders had to take a language; I took French. When I got to high school at Bishop Watterson and all ninth graders had to take a language, I kept it going, as I did when I got to Oberlin. This was not a matter of skill; I'm not particularly good at languages, and my performance was pretty average. But by my junior year I began to see its direct benefit on my art historical studies. At the time I gave credit to my college professors, and maybe my high school teachers; but now, prompted by Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco's post, I recognize that it was my junior high's language requirement that got the ball rolling. No one could have predicted in Madame Lendt's very rudimentary French class that I'd go on to write a book about a French artist--because the effects of education are unpredictable. The unpredictable results of making a broad education broadly available make me uneasy when folks like Larry Summers turn their thoughts to educational efficiency. He imagines that we have to choose between training workers and educating people. I disagree.

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