Thomas Friedman wrote a fantastic, spot-on column last week about what the Chinese embassy in Washington might send in a WikiLeaks-style cable to Beijing. My favorite part is this:
“But the Americans are oblivious. They travel abroad so rarely that they don’t see how far they are falling behind. Which is why we at the [Chinese] embassy find it funny that Americans are now fighting over how ‘exceptional’ they are.”
Be sure to read the whole thing if you haven’t already: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/01/opinion/01friedman.html?scp=2&sq=friedman&st=cse
I’ve written before (https://educationescritora.wordpress.com/2010/10/19/why-dont-more-of-us-speak-a-foreign-language/) about the tragedy of foreign language education, or lack thereof, in the United States, so you’ll understand why I got so upset when I saw this article in the New York Times yesterday: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/05/education/05languages.html?_r=1&ref=education.
The article lists a host of universities that have cut foreign language classes or programs, in many cases eliminating the possibility for students to major or minor in a language. Even George Washington University, home to an excellent international studies program, has eliminated its foreign language requirement for students. I love the quotes included from John Hamilton of LSU: “There’s no way on earth we should be cutting these languages… we should be adding languages and urging more students to take them… I’m being asked to prepare students for the global economy, but this is almost like asking them to use the abacus instead of computers.”
Now, the article suggests that it’s mostly European languages that are getting the ax due to funding constraints. If universities are indeed shifting funds from German to Arabic or Italian to Chinese, I don’t have a major problem with that – more Americans definitely need to know the languages of Asia and the Middle East. The president of the Council on Foreign Relations said “if we’re going to remain economically competitive and provide the skill and manpower for government, I think we need more Americans to learn Chinese or Hindi or Farsi or Portuguese or Korean or Arabic.”
But I’m not going to argue for one set of languages over another. The point is that Americans should be able to speak at least one other language fluently, whether it’s one they can use here (like Spanish) or elsewhere. In the three jobs I’ve had up to this point, I’ve met very, very few people who could claim to speak another language conversationally; the fact that I’ve studied four (Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese) puts me in a category practically by myself.
Learning a language isn’t just about knowing the words and verb conjugations – it’s about learning how other people in the world live. It’s so easy for Americans to think that everyone lives like we do because of how pervasive our cultural products are – I hear just as many songs in English when I travel abroad as I do in the native language, but do ANY foreign language songs make it on to our pop stations? No – at best, we get Shakira’s songs in English.
One of the weakest skills among American students nowadays is critical thinking, and I would argue for foreign languages as another way to reinforce that skill. For instance, if you watch a foreign film, you get an up-close look at how people from that country live and immediately start to compare it to what you experience in the United States. More important, though, is the potential for Americans to learn through foreign language study that people are people regardless of where they live and what language they speak. It’s easy for us to think of how “foreign” others are and start to feel like non-Americans are an entirely different species, but you’ll learn in a foreign language class that family is just as important in other cultures, religion has as much influence as it does here, and that things look much the same in Argentina or Croatia as they do here, despite the tumultuous recent history of those countries.
I wish foreign language study included a mandatory trip to the relevant country/countries to use the language. Imagine the value of Middle East-fearing Americans studying Arabic and then going to Syria to use it! Think of the cultural bridges that we could build.
The point is, we cannot afford for Americans to become more oblivious, as Tom Friedman says. It will be a rude awakening a few decades when suddenly the United States is not as powerful and we realize that only a handful of our citizens have the skills and perspectives needed to keep us competitive in the world.