Never mind ‘strategy,’ a basic education involves others’ languages


“Americans have never been particularly interested in learning other languages and are even less interested today. . . . Our government spends 25 per cent less, adjusted for inflation, than it did 40 years ago on foreign-language training at university level.”

So wrote author Susan Jacoby in the New York Times on Feb. 7 as part of a series of short articles under the comprehensive headline, “Will Americans Really Learn Chinese?”

In fact, there has been a small rise in the number of schools teaching Chinese in the United States, largely thanks to subsidies from the Chinese government.

This is a change from the time when Americans were shaken by the October 1957 launch by the Soviet Union of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to go into orbit. Back then it was the U.S. government that went into action, passing, less than a year later, the National Defense Education Act, a law aimed at beefing up training in the sciences. With funding from the government, many tertiary institutions then began focusing attention on Russian-language training as well.

Though only 13 when Sputnik was sailing over the skies of my hometown of Los Angeles, I was so excited that I went to the local library, borrowed a Russian- English dictionary and taught myself the Cyrillic alphabet and a few words of the language. Friends of my parents were alarmed. “Does this mean,” they asked my dad with grave concern for my future, “that Roger is a communist?”

The NDEA, whose stated purpose was “to meet the national defense needs of the United States,” contained a clause requiring all those receiving federal funds to sign an affidavit renouncing any intention to overthrow the government.

This disclaimer provision was repealed in 1962 under the administration of President John F. Kennedy. By that time the national ardor for studying Russian was, in any case, in abeyance. After all, the U.S. was well on its way to catching up with the USSR in space exploration and missile development. Why take the trouble to learn their language when it was proving to be “unnecessary”?

By then I was at university, immersed in the study of Russian, which I pursued at graduate school. By the mid- to late ’60s, friends and family alike were saying to me, “Why are you studying Russian? It’s so old hat.”

Indeed, there was a waning of enthusiasm for foreign-language teaching in the U.S. until the rise of Japan as a rivalling economic power dealt a seismic jolt to the American consciousness. Japanese was pronounced a “language of the future,” and there was a significant rise in its study in the nation’s secondary schools and universities.

But then, when Japan’s economic bubble burst in the early ’90s, the excitement over Japanese-language education in the U.S. deflated with it. The American-driven IT boom overwhelmed the desire not only for language training but for arts education as well. If you knew English, went the argument, you could communicate with the world. If you understood how to make money from derivatives, why would you need to know about the derivation of words?

Now, a third postwar wave of foreign-language education is flowing over the U.S. — though this flow is more like a trickle, what Jacoby calls a “mini-blip.” Nonetheless, it is estimated to have caused a rise in the number of schools teaching Chinese of between 1 and 4 per cent. It’s hard to imagine that Americans, still smug about the international dominance of the English language, will truly dedicate themselves to the study of Chinese — or any other language, for that matter.

What drives this phenomenon that has characterized the serial inquisitiveness for foreign languages once every two decades?

It is the wholesale strategization of American education.

The U.S., having replaced Great Britain as an imperial power in the postwar period, and being eager to remain unrivalled by friend or foe, began to treat education as an aspect of national strategy, a tactical weapon in its arsenal to combat anyone who might have an eye on a portion of profit or territory that Americans deemed theirs.

It’s surprising they haven’t abolished the Department of Education itself and divvied up the teaching of youth between the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Defense.

If you believe you should study a foreign language solely for strategic purposes, such as those that underpinned the study of Russian and Japanese in the past — and those motivating Chinese-language learning today — then you will certainly abandon that study once you feel your nation has “outgrown” the need.

However, the fact is that foreign- language training should be a central part of any education system, not only because it is an eye-opening experience, but because it also enriches your knowledge of the world and your own personality. When you realize that there are different ways to say or even to think something, your sense of objectivity about human nature and culture is sharpened. When you take the steps to meet people of other nationalities halfway, you learn humility and tolerance.

I can think of no other field of study that affords such an opportunity to slip out of one’s skin, if only temporarily, and inhabit that of another.

I am about to retire from a teaching career at the end of March this year, having taught four languages over many years. My purpose was to give students a deep insight into their own ways of thinking, as well as those of the people who spoke the languages I taught — English, Japanese, Russian and Polish. If my students derived a strategic advantage of a personal nature from acquiring one of these languages, more power to them. If they ended up reading the literature of the country in the original, what could be more wonderful?

Each student has their own reason for studying a foreign language. In my case, I had no idea what that reason was. I was fired up by the sight of an artificial satellite arcing across the sky. That gave my passion for foreign languages a burning incentive that has lasted a lifetime. If I hadn’t studied languages, I doubt that I would have become a writer, and I certainly wouldn’t be appearing on these pages before you.

German linguist Ingrid Pufahl writes in the New York Times article, “U.S. education lacks a cohesive approach to language instruction as part of each citizen’s right to a basic education.”

I couldn’t agree more. “Basic” is the key word here: basic in the deepest human terms imaginable.

If you study a foreign language, you learn profound things about yourself. Finding out why it is absolutely necessary to your personal happiness is half the reason for doing it.