Languages

Research documents decline in languages offered over three-year period

Study documents decline in languages offered for instruction at American colleges over three-year period.

Literature professors outline strategies for attracting more students

Number of English majors is dropping and many language programs fight for survival. But at the MLA, professors share strategies that are boosting enrollments and in some cases forcing them to change what they teach.

Report reveals divergent trends in modern language job market

Data released ahead of MLA convention set tone for hiring in the humanities this season.

A reconsideration of the value of language learning in college (opinion)

Learning a language is one of the most transformative things a student can do during their college years. In nearly two decades of teaching Spanish in American universities, I have never heard a student say, “I wish my parents hadn’t taught me Spanish growing up” or “I wish I had never studied [X or Y language].” The same goes for parents and alumni at admissions and orientations events: languages are the subject they wish they had been able to take or spend more time studying.

The latest report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, "The Humanities in American Life," confirms the testimonies that most of us working in language departments have heard over the years. According to the survey report, 49 percent of respondents wish they’d had more opportunities to learn languages, more than perennial major favorites like computer science (45 percent), social sciences (40 percent) or business (39 percent). While attitudes about how much and at what age to start language education vary across the political spectrum, nearly two-thirds of those surveyed agree that it is important for children to learn languages other than English.

If only language departments received as much institutional love as those other three disciplines. In comparison, even at institutions that pride themselves on their language and off-campus programs, language departments are starved of resources in the best of times -- dealing with generally lower average salaries for their faculty members, lower rates of tenured faculty and a long list of inequalities.

Being the poor relative on campus is the best-case scenario for language departments, which are usually among the first on the chopping block during every recession. Many programs -- more than 650 between 2013 and 2016 alone -- no longer exist. And since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, other colleges and universities have followed suit. There is no telling what will happen to language departments in financially embattled institutions when the current crisis is over.

No college or university president is going to read the report and say, “Gee, let’s care about languages and put our resources where our lofty mission statements are.” I would love to be wrong about the impact of the report, but if decades of think pieces and books about the “crisis in the humanities” and how valuable its skills are to the job market have not managed to move the needle, no amount of surveys by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences will, either.

To be sure, humanities divisions and language programs in particular have good reason to celebrate the findings in this report. It is unambiguously positive that 63 percent of Americans feel that it is important for children to learn other languages.

It is nevertheless sobering that most survey respondents do not use other languages at work, or that nearly half feel that languages are not necessary for their profession. That is true of respondents with different income levels.

In some ways, I find such responses liberating. For decades, language programs have touted the workforce benefits of learning languages in order to attract students. The Modern Language Association and ACTFL hint in their advocacy materials that college grads with advanced language proficiency go on to make more money. Maybe the AAAS survey report will help us find other ways to advocate for the languages we love without sending the message that job placement and salary are the only measure of languages’ worth.

There are bright spots in the AAAS report. According to the survey summary for foreign languages, “77 percent of Americans who often use a language other than English in the workplace also often use a language with family and friends.” In other words, language use at home and work is higher among members of existing multilingual communities. While very few respondents claim languages are relevant to their jobs, more than 80 percent report interacting with people from other cultures at work. I am willing to bet a modest amount that a good portion of those multicultural co-workers speak other languages as well.

Which brings me to my point. It is time to rethink how we advocate for language education. To be clear, languages are useful in all kinds of professions. I can’t think of any job where speaking more than one language would be a drawback. A recent ACTFL report suggests that an increasing number of employers find languages a valuable skill. But we are not fooling anybody, except perhaps ourselves, when we sell language education as a ticket to better jobs and higher salaries.

What to argue instead? For one, the value of keeping languages other than English alive in multilingual communities. We are a multilingual society with a monolingual complex, and language programs can help with that reality.

Two, the skills you learn in a language class are definitely useful when interacting with neighbors, co-workers, clients, patients and so forth from other cultures. Languages are not just lists of foreign words. In a language classroom, you learn linguistic conventions, sure, but you also develop a multilingual literacy of sorts -- cultural perspective, interpretive skills or a propensity toward collaboration. Finally, with a bit of luck, languages can help students (and a few of our colleagues in more glamorous departments) move beyond monolingual ethnocentrism.

Language learning can be a meaningful part of a student’s education regardless of job placement. Just as we do not expect students to become actuaries to justify the value of learning math, we need to stop presenting outliers -- the Pete Buttigiegs who land prestigious consulting jobs -- as the only measure of the value of language education. Instead, we need to start thinking about multilingual literacy as a core component of living in a multilingual society.

Roberto Rey Agudo (@robertoreyagudo) is the language program director of the department of Spanish and Portuguese at Dartmouth College and was a 2018 Public Voices fellow with The OpEd Project.

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No clear-cut answers for reforming English language instruction

While some institutions are having success speeding up instruction of English as a second language, some instructors are skeptical because of limited information about what models work best.

Leaders of literary journals discuss strategies to face economic challenges

Editors consider how small publications can find support and reach audiences.

The problems with accelerated learning of ESL (opinion)

Last year, California passed legislation that states “that a student enrolled in English-as-a-second-language (ESL) instruction will enter and complete degree and transfer requirements in English within a timeframe of three years.” Seriously?

I have five graduate degrees, three of which I received from Yale University: a master’s in linguistics, a Ph.D. in linguistics and a master’s in philosophy. I also have two other master’s degrees, one in linguistics and another in education. Moreover, I taught ESL at Yuba College in California for 28 years and have taught it for about 43 years in all. I know four languages, and through my 14 years of studying different branches of linguistics, I have some familiarity with the syntax and morphology of a few other languages, as well.

My background leads me to think that the California legislators must have been geniuses to have come up with such a powerful potion. Apparently, they have resolved a 1,000-year-old mystery. They have found the magic tablet: take one a day for three years and you will have mastered English. That seems so much better than the usual six to 10 or more years that it often takes most people to learn and become proficient in another language. Amazing!

Admittedly, if those politicians who came up with the three-year time frame had come to someone like me for an opinion before the bill became law, I, for example, would have asked them to stop the nonsense. Obviously, they have no idea about what language learning means or the effort it takes the human brain to learn another language.

Through the years, I have heard this question repeatedly: “So how long would it take to learn another language?” The shortest answer is, “It depends on so many factors.” Let me briefly explain some of the factors involved in the complex process of language leaning.

Educational background. What is already stored in the brain of the language learner has a great impact on how well and how fast they can learn the target language. That is, when it comes to language learning, one size does not fit all. Student populations differ from college to college. For example, at Yuba College, many of the students come from Mexican or South American villages and have little or no education. Or they are from a war-stricken country like Afghanistan, where many children have had to stay home for years just to be safe, so they don’t have much schooling, either.

In contrast, before coming to Yuba, I taught ESL at the Adult Education Center in New Haven, Conn. There, the majority of my students were the spouses of Yale graduate students, some of whom were my own classmates. Many were highly educated people, and some had Ph.D.s from their own countries. Similarly, before teaching in New Haven, I taught ESL at places like Tehran University and Isfahan University of Technology, where students were the cream of the crop because they had to take one of the most difficult entrance exams in the world to get into those universities.

Can we put all these groups of students in the same category and expect all of them to learn English in three years?

Age difference. The younger you are, the easier it is to learn another language. The best time to learn two or more languages is from birth to when you are about 5 years old. The second stage is from age 5 until puberty. The third stage is from puberty until about 18 or 20 years old. After that, it becomes gradually more difficult -- with, of course, some exceptions.

Family environment. Language learning is generally much more difficult for a student who has children, takes care of an elderly person, has to work while studying or lives in a dysfunctional family environment than it is for a student who is single and has none of those issues.

Economic status. A student who is worried daily about who is going to give them a ride to college, how they are going to earn money to put food on their table or what happens if their financial aid stops if they fail a class cannot learn a language as well as or faster than a student who doesn’t have such concerns.

Linguistic affiliation. There are several language families, each containing many languages. And languages themselves, whether across families or subfamilies, are classified into many types, such as tonal versus nontonal, stress-timed versus nonstress, isolating versus agglutinating, inflectional versus polysynthetic, syllabic versus analytical and so on. The differences among each one of those classifications create various degrees of difficulty for the speakers from different language families or different branches of the same language family when they attempt to learn a second language.

For example, learning English is a lot easier for a German speaker (both languages are from the same branch) than a Farsi speaker (all three belonging to the Indo-European family), while it is much more difficult for a Hmong speaker (from the Hmong-Mien language family, which is, unlike these other languages, a tonal language with seven distinct tones) or for an Arabic speaker (from the Semitic language family). So how can we put all these students in one classroom and expect them to learn English in three years?

Practice and repetition. The number of hours of daily practice and repetition, especially outside of the classroom, is another crucial factor.

When I was 20 years old and an undergraduate freshman at a university in Tehran, I chose to study French as my third language. I loved learning French, and I had already memorized some sentences because of my previous year’s job as a receptionist in a hotel where many French-speaking as well as English-speaking tourists stayed.

The French class met five hours a week, but I was practicing and doing a lot of written homework on my own about three hours a day. I was both a full-time student and working full-time at another hotel as a receptionist. I spent about 26 hours a week, including the classroom hours, practicing French. After three years, I was quite fluent in it, and I could read a simplified version of Les Misérables.

But you obviously cannot equate my case with that of an illiterate Hmong student who was a farmer in the mountains of Laos and is now enrolled in an ESL class in California. It is such a shame and injustice on the part of our educational system to expect this student, and hundreds of others in similar conditions, to learn English in three years!

Now, put some adult learners in a language learning class that meets three to five hours a week. It could take roughly 10,000 hours for them to become fluent in the second language, according to Sarah Elaine Eaton, K. Anders Ericsson and others. So the question now is, does 10,000 hours amount to three years of study? Even if a student studies and practices ESL for 30 hours a week, it would take them about six and a half years to learn English.

Motivation. One of the most important factors in language learning is motivation or determination. In some cases, that factor alone can compensate for most of the others. But the motivation is all internal, not external. The necessity that the person feels to learn the second language is what makes the difference, but that feeling comes in various degrees.

We are lucky that the overwhelming majority of ESL students at community colleges have felt some necessity to learn, and that is exactly why they attend ESL classes. Yet the degree of necessity varies greatly among them, and, in many cases, other factors -- like the ever-present struggle to survive financially -- are a hindrance.

In other words, the necessity to learn feels urgent. For example, when my wife and I came here many years ago, my daughter was 2 and a half years old, and she didn’t know English at all. My wife and I let her play with our neighbors’ children every day, and at home she watched cartoons and children’s shows and movies in English. After about 15 months, she was easily and fully communicating with her American friends in English.

What was her motivation? It was the powerful feeling of necessity and the burning desire to be able to understand and communicate well with her friends; she wanted to be one of them, not an outsider. (I am, of course, aware that age and other factors are involved, as well, especially the fact that all of her necessities were provided for her.)

Other factors. These can include the mental pressures that a person might feel on any day of their lives, including how many courses they are taking in a semester. Another factor is the difference in people’s learning styles. That one alone could affect a teacher’s plans for the entire semester, as it might require creating exercises and lectures that target visual, aural, verbal, physical, logical, social and solitary learners. Generally, a teacher can’t consider all of these styles; therefore, it would definitely have an impact on how well and how fast the students can learn the language.

But in California, a group of politicians have told us that they have found the magic pill: acceleration. In other words, they’ve figured out how everyone can learn English and graduate in three years (or less).

Frankly, a few years ago, when I first heard about the so-called research on acceleration, I didn’t take it seriously. I was certain that when the real educators found out about that project, they would never buy in to that bogus and misguided concept. I am indeed flabbergasted that they have proven me wrong!

I hope you won’t misunderstand me. To me acceleration is of two kinds. One is that which I call “selective acceleration,” while the other is a “blanket acceleration.” The first one is a great service to our society, while the second one is an insult to our educational system and our students.

For as long as I remember, I have implemented selective acceleration on my own. At the end of every semester, I’ve had a few students who excelled to the extent that I was sure they could skip a level, or sometimes two. Therefore, I always encouraged those students to enroll in the higher level the following semester.

As for the blanket or one-size-fits-all model, I hope I have shown that this kind of acceleration will be a disastrous hurricane hitting our colleges and undermining our students’ hopes.

In sum, I feel sympathy for the future of our educational system and our students. I am truly disheartened by the whole shambles, and I am guessing that it will take about 10 years for the educators to wake up, by which time we will have ruined the lives of thousands of students and wasted millions of dollars. I could bring up a similar argument against acceleration in English and math, but I will leave that to the English and math teachers.

I hope the politicians will one day come to their senses and stop relying on the kind of pseudo-research that promotes “magic pill” solutions for complex problems.

Parviz Parsafar recently retired as a professor of English as a second language at Yuba College in California.

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Trial and Error: Building a modern Spanish learning platform

Two foreign-language instructors teamed up to work with a publisher on a digital textbook, but the idea didn't fully blossom until much later.

The paucity of Asians and other minorities teaching and studying Italian and other foreign languages (opinion)

Recently, the president of the undergraduate Asian Advocacy Group at the University of Virginia invited me to speak at their spring gala. My subject was how it feels to be a minority (Asian) in a field (Italian) in which there are very few minorities. After the event, I decided to pursue the subject further and contacted 40 minority graduate students and faculty members in Italian, French and Spanish. Their accounts reveal considerable differences in the management of diversity within those fields. While there is not enough data to make broad generalizations, there’s enough to complicate our commonly held views.

Let’s begin with a view from the inside: my own worst experience. When I was an assistant professor in the late 1980s, two former colleagues whom I considered friends used the terms “slants” and “chinky” in my presence. Those slurs were not directed at me. I said nothing at the time, but the experience left me nonplussed: it seemed my colleagues had forgotten that I was Asian.

This peculiar practice continues today, as the frequent experiences of Asians I know personally or have contacted demonstrate. A Japanese Hispanist recalls being ignored routinely by his professors while he was a graduate student. An Asian professor of French recounts the irony of colleagues “speaking over” her during a department discussion of how to attract more minority students. Such incidents seem to be ironies of situation, but this kind of disregard is symptomatic of a deeper reality. At the habitual level of immediate perception, Asianness can seem invisible.

At other times, Asianness becomes oddly prominent. Job interviews can be fraught. A member of a search committee suggested to an American whose ancestry is Indian that he list English among his languages. Interviewers asked an Asian male applicant, “How do you get along with American students?” A mixed-race Italianist was told during her job interview that she was not “ethnic enough” to qualify as a diversity candidate. Sometimes the erasure is partial.

And of course, we experience the usual indignities of being a person of color: explaining for the umpteenth time why we are not teaching Chinese/Japanese/Korean or answering the variously inflected “How did you get into Italian?” Those incidents can be perplexingly intersectional. Witness the frustration of female minorities who wonder if it’s their gender or ethnicity that occasions slights. And then there are outright exclusions: male graduate students in the Italian program at an Ivy League institution did not include a black woman, whom they had nicknamed “la perla nera” (the black pearl), in study groups. At another university, a professor repeatedly referred to a Chinese graduate student as Japanese, asking her if he needed to “slow down,” despite the fact that her English was better than that of Italians in the class, and telling her she was taking up the space of another student. We often face the loneliness of being the only person of color in professional spaces.

Fluency constitutes another challenge. Virtually every person of color has stories about being tested, all the more so if one speaks English with an accent. Many native speakers erect barriers by speaking their language pointedly. As Wan Tang, assistant professor of Romance languages at Boston College, puts it, “I think the main issue to address is incredulity that a phenotypically Asian woman with an Asian name can speak, much less, teach in Spanish.”

My point here is less about slights than the larger issue of diversity. Views of the inclusiveness of the different Romance languages vary. Some languages have diversity built into the program of study. Spanish programs typically include Latin Americanists. Opinions on the diversity of Peninsular Spanish are mixed. Some find the field Eurocentric, male dominated and white. Others think Spanish is becoming more diverse, noting that Asian-Hispanic studies is an emerging field. Witness the forthcoming conference in Hong Kong on Theater Under the Ming and the Hapsburgs: Angelica in and out of Cathay. The composition of French departments reflects the country’s colonialist history. Many have African -- both sub-Sahara and Maghreb -- scholars as well as minority colleagues who work on Francophone culture.

I’ve found the situation in Italian to be markedly worse. In responding to my query concerning the field’s diversity, Italianists tended to limit their comments to mentioning minority students they had taught. A certain blindness prevails, exemplified in the question raised by a visiting professor of Italian at a university in California who wondered to another professor, “What are all of these Asian-American students doing studying Italian?” Such incomprehension belies a failure of empathy as to why Asian students might wish to take Italian and the way in which their presence broadens interest in the language. Only four of the 15 Italianists I contacted acknowledged that “Italian is not very diverse.” Outreach undertaken by the American Association of Italian Studies has, from what I’ve seen thus far, been limited to creating caucuses for queer studies, women’s studies and Jewish studies. What’s included is important, but so is what’s excluded.

The problem is all the more acute because Italian studies is in precipitous decline. The latest data from the Modern Language Association on undergraduate enrollments shows a drop of 20 percent from 2013 to 2016. Various reasons have been identified: few high schools offer Italian; the job market is bleak; university administrators have cut budgets for language departments. But internal factors area also to blame: the field has been insular for decades, and a patronage culture prevails. Many Italian programs strive for “authenticity” by favoring native Italians. The persistence of this practice fosters the widely voiced opinion that “Italians hire Italians.” But a failure to diversify has consequences, as well.

In fact, greater diversification offers a way forward. The actions of some learned societies offer a model for Italian and other imperiled disciplines seeking to rebuild themselves. The Latin American Studies Association, a large multidisciplinary organization with more than 12,000 members in 2017, introduced a division on Asia and the Americas in 1995. Membership in that division has grown every year and numbered 129 scholars last year. Members pursue an array of interests: Chinese investment in Latin America; Asian diasporas in Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, Argentina and Peru; Asian Latinos and the U.S. Census.

Last year the Renaissance Society of America introduced travel grants to minorities to participate in its annual meeting. In 2012, Lino Pertile, former director of Villa I Tatti, the Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, extended outreach to scholars in Japan and China. Pertile invited Chinese scholars, who had never seen Italian works of art, to spend time at I Tatti. One year later, they participated in a conference, The Italian Renaissance and Chinese Receptions, at the Harvard Center in Shanghai.

In March, the Medieval Academy of America introduced a number of initiatives: the Belle Da Costa Green (named after Pierpont Morgan’s Afro-American librarian) research prize for a medievalist of color; diversity and inclusivity travel grants for members presenting papers on race-related topics; and committees to adjudicate these prizes and organize a mentoring program for minorities. The annual meeting in March opened with a plenary sponsored by medievalists of color. These are substantive interventions to define a field in the face of the alt-right’s recent promotion of the Middle Ages as a world of a white Europe.

Four years ago, contributions from the Folger Shakespeare Library and several donors enabled the Shakespeare Association of America to offer a Scholars of Color reception, now a regular event at annual meetings. Ayanna Thompson, who spearheaded the initiative, was elected the first black president of the association this year. Erika Lin, associate professor of theater at the City College of New York Graduate Center, has organized plenary panels on The Color of Membership as part of a new series on Shakespearean Futures, the aim of which is to promote conversation about the institutional conditions that affect our intellectual lives. Established in 1977, the association has tripled its membership in the last 20 years.

I was the only Asian Italianist on the job market in 1986. While my position is no longer unique, the number of minorities in Italian studies remains dismally small. But while we can do little to control external forces, we can take advantage of the importance accorded diversity in academe and the national discourse to make Italian more diverse and inclusive. “This is a crucial issue for our field’s survival and intellectual thriving,” notes Deanna Shemek, professor of literature, at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

More of the same clearly will not revitalize Italian. Identity politics matter greatly to today’s undergraduates. More minorities within the professoriate will attract a broader demographic among students. As Asian students have told Christina Lee, a professor of Spanish at Princeton University, “I want to do what you do.”

Qi Chen, assistant professor at Beihang University in China, who has been a visiting scholar at Harvard University and Villa I Tatti, puts the challenge before Italian bluntly: if Italian studies were confined in the West, it may have difficulty achieving truly international status. This is especially true for large countries like China, with great potential. Researchers in Italian studies should be more open to minority researchers, and understand that different views about the same topics are possible.

Virtually everyone I queried deemed this topic “important and timely.” Can this sentiment be converted to action? Can Italian enact a bold and more inclusive vision for its future or will we be left with managing a decline?

Deborah Parker is a professor of Italian at the University of Virginia who works on Italian visual and print cultures of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Her most recent book, co-authored with Mark Parker, is Sucking Up: A Brief Consideration of Sycophancy.

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The often unspoken privilege of speaking English in academe (opinion)

While I was in Nanjing, China, recently for an academic conference, the host institution graciously provided me with a driver to and from the airport. A bright, engaging Chinese graduate student accompanied the driver, and, although his English was still coming along, we tried to converse in the car. Trying to make conversation, I asked the student at one point if he ever got to Shanghai, about two hours away by bullet train.

He seemed to understand my question, and he responded by saying “not a lot.” When I asked why not, he thought for a bit, then replied, somewhat haltingly, “There, the step of life too many.” I nodded knowingly, but at first had trouble deciphering what he meant. After a half minute or so, I understood what he was getting at -- in Shanghai, the pace of life was too quick. I had learned earlier that he was from a village in Hunan Province, and, although the population of Nanjing is over eight million, the population in the city core of Shanghai is more than three times larger, making for a far different urban experience. Bottom line: language training may be getting better and translation software more sophisticated, but idioms are still tough.

Anyway, the student’s comment about the “step of life” being “too many” got me thinking about language, particularly about the English language and my relative facility in it. I’m an academic, and using and manipulating language is my stock in trade. Indeed, because I’ve worked at a research university for nearly 35 years, I’ve long labored under publish-or-perish protocols, so writing perforce has constituted an everyday part of my work life. I realize that, by now, cynics reading this piece are probably questioning the relationship I’m implying between academics and facility in English, but, hold on a bit longer, because it’s about to get even worse. I’m going to introduce the concept of privilege into the essay, although I promise to use the word as a noun rather than as a hideous, even frightful verb.

Let me start by pointing out that on those relatively rare occasions on campuses today when our increasingly dumb -- as in speechless -- students look up from their purportedly smartphones in order to converse, the word “privilege” is frequently heard. That word is used as a noun most of the time, usually following an adjective or noun used adjectivally, with words such as “white,” “elite,” “male” and “heterosexual” predominating, but with constructions such as “middle-class” and “able-bodied” common as well. White privilege is probably the construction used most, but students also mutter about male privilege and middle-class privilege or, simply, class privilege, at regular intervals.

I am a middle-class, heterosexual, old yet able-bodied white male, so it is commonly assumed on university campuses that people like me constitute the embodiment of unearned “intersectional” privilege. As a result, things said or written by “pale males” like me are often qualified and sometimes even disqualified ex ante. To be sure, the sources of “unearned” privilege that I purportedly embody once possessed a good deal of explanatory power and retain some even today. Most relatively objective observers, however, would grant that such power has been considerably reduced on college campuses in recent decades and, in some cases, completely reversed. That is to say, in an increasing number of academic settings, being a middle-class, heterosexual, old yet able-bodied white male can actually be a hindrance or handicap.

That said, despite my general unease with “privilege creep,” I would like to call attention here to yet another form of “unearned” privilege -- fluency in the English language -- from which I myself benefit greatly. More specifically, the fact that I am a native speaker of English has almost literally meant the world to me.

At this late date, it’s hardly news that English rules, dominating the worlds of science, business, academe, tourism and travel, and diplomacy -- not to mention the internet, where English-content sites prevail. Having succeeded erstwhile “universalist” languages such as Latin and French, English reigns supreme, with only Mandarin a threat to supersede it going forward.

So how does this “unearned” privilege positively affect an academic like me? Let me count the ways. I work in English and have easy access to much of the world’s most important research. I submit articles written in my native language to the leading publishers and publication venues in the world, most of which are in English. I am readily available to the world’s most influential media companies for instant analysis. When I travel internationally, informational messaging and signage are custom fit, and almost anywhere I go -- and I travel a lot -- I can find an English speaker to ease my way.

Linguists are well aware of the strangeness, even weirdness of English, and I can only imagine how agonizing is the process by which nonnative speakers learn to communicate well in it. Yet many do, via a variety of means. Almost every academic in the United States can come up with interesting and insightful examples in this regard.

One of my personal favorites involves an IT professional who was formerly employed at my university. When he migrated to America from China in the mid-1980s, he knew no English and got by at first by washing dishes in a local Chinese restaurant. Desperate to learn English, he went through the usual language-training books and watched American TV. But what helped most, he subsequently told me, were the free private tutorials he received every Saturday afternoon from two very nice older women who would visit his apartment and spend several hours conversing with him. This drill went on for some time, and when it ended, his English had improved a lot -- enough so that he finally had realized that the two women, Jehovah’s witnesses, had not only been talking about religion but also trying to recruit him!

The experiences of two of my frequent academic collaborators are also revealing. One, an Indian economist, was born into a Gujarati family in India in 1954, moving to the British crown colony of Singapore shortly thereafter. His native language was Gujarati, but he later learned English and Malay in Singapore, eventually earning a Ph.D. in economics in the United States. Today he is a well-known petroleum economist, whose strong, brilliantly analytical English prose appears not only in scholarly and trade publications but also in newspapers and magazines around the world.

My second example is powerfully revealing as well. This collaborator (another economist) was born into a Hungarian Jewish family in Budapest in 1944. After surviving the horrors of World War II and the Iron Curtain, his family fled Hungary with the collapse of the revolution there in 1956, eventually settling in Chicago. My later collaborator was then 12 and, upon arrival, knew not a word of English. Chicago (my hometown) has never been known for coddling anyone -- certainly not in the mid-1950s -- and my friend, upon entering public school, was plunked down in the first grade with students half his age. As he became more adept in English, he gradually caught up, spending time with third graders, then fifth graders, before eventually resettling with students his own age.

By his own account, however, his English remained rudimentary through high school and college. It was only in graduate school -- largely through years of painstaking work on his own -- that he finally began to achieve real mastery of English, which he has subsequently demonstrated in spades. After earning two doctorate degrees from the University of Chicago -- one in history, the other in economics -- he went on to a highly distinguished career in academe.

Those stories are meant to be illustrative, not unique. I could have spun out several more, and any academic in this country could do so as well. Moreover, had I the time and space, I could have included a discussion of luminaries such as Conrad, Nabokov and Achebe, as well as more recent writers such as Eva Hoffman and Aleksandar Hemon, whose dazzling English prose belies the fact that English is not their native tongue. I shan’t, though, for the principal takeaway from the stories I spun, indeed, from this whole exercise, is not that some people are so gifted as to kill it in a language other than that into which they were born. Rather, the point is that all of us born with English have a powerful “unearned” privilege in academe, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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