A Defense of Non-European Languages

Alexander Maxwell argues that eliminating a German department may be an entirely appropriate decision for a university to make.

May 30, 2008

Recent moves by the University of Southern California to abolish the German department prompted Stephen Brockmann, a professor of German at Carnegie Mellon University, to write “A Defense of European Languages.” Brockmann freely concedes both his “subjective interest” in and his “loyalty to [his] profession." Nevertheless his contribution, while reflecting the views of many who teach European languages, systematically fails to address the strategic choices at stake.

Though I myself specialize in European history, learned my own German at a California university, teach with pleasure a course on the “history of the German-speaking peoples,” and share professor Brockmann’s affection for the European cultural tradition, I support USC’s actions: The United States needs to focus away from European languages, and USC’s decision to abolish German makes sense.

The fundamental flaw in Brockmann’s argument lies in his thesis statement: “enhancing language education in the United States should not be conceived of as a zero sum game.” For USC, I suggest, the relevant issue is not how language education is “conceived,” but how it is funded. Funding issues may not technically be a zero-sum game since the possibility of increased spending always exists, but at present, the possibility of increased spending strikes me as rather theoretical, at least in the humanities.

All funding decisions, however, must take into account that financial resources are finite. No matter how much enthusiasm lawmakers or foundations may unexpectedly develop for foreign language education, every German professor’s salary will still cost money that might have paid for a professor of, say, Arabic, Armenian, Persian, Tagalog (Filipino), or Vietnamese. Universities must make choices.

Brockmann goes on to argue that Spanish, French and German “still have -- and should have -- a good deal of life left in them.” This statement as it stands is absolutely true. However, it also holds for Arabic, Armenian, Persian, Tagalog or Vietnamese, all languages that have -- and should have -- a good deal of life left in them. The issue is not the continued vitality of the language, but the resources devoted to its study. Enrollment figures, however, suggest that German receives a disproportionate share of attention in California. In 2006, with 7,647 enrollments, it enjoyed greater numbers than Arabic, Armenian, Persian, Tagalog and Vietnamese combined (respectively 3,556, 727, 1,025, 384 and 1,815 for a total 7,505 enrollments, according to figures from the Modern Language Association.

Brockmann then appeals to “the centrality of European intellectual traditions to the world’s history,” yearning for the departed consensus of “the 1960s, and even into 1970s and 1980s” that a liberally educated student should study the best of the Western intellectual and cultural tradition, from Plato through Descartes, Kant, and Nietzsche, and that such a student should also learn at least one of the ancient or foreign languages at the core of that western tradition (Latin, Greek, French, German, Italian and Spanish).

I have no memory of this bygone era; I did my own undergraduate training during the late 1980s, during which the backlash against “dead white males” may have reached its crescendo. An implicit and perhaps unintended Eurocentricism nevertheless pervades Brockmann’s argument. Surely, however, Brockmann would concede that students who study Armenian, Arabic, Persian, Tagalog or Vietnamese also acquire a liberal education?

One might argue that the study of classical European languages does not prevent students from studying other languages. Presumably, Brockmann and I would both welcome an increase in the number of students taking any and all foreign languages. Brockman’s emphasis on “enhancing foreign language study overall” nevertheless remains disingenuous. Even doubled or tripled enrollments, like university budgets, remain finite; even the biggest pie must somehow be divided. Individual students must also make choices. The decision to study language A is inevitably the decision to not study language B; even the exceptional student who studies both A and B still decides not to study C, D, or E. The undoubted benefit of students learning German must therefore be weighed against the opportunity cost of students not studying Armenian, Arabic, Persian, Tagalog or Vietnamese.

Speaking as a Europeanist, I would argue for a light bias in favor of less studied languages. My own idea of a general liberal arts education requires some familiarity with the world as a whole, not merely one of its many cultures. Confucius, Buddha and Mohammad should receive as much attention as Jesus and Moses; Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah requires as much study as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.

The education of American high school students certainly leaves much to be desired, but I feel confident predicting that more incoming freshmen are familiar with Goethe than Rumi. My own high school education, in Irvine California, covered Kafka’s Metamorphasis and a segment from Faust, but nothing at all from China or India, to say nothing of Armenian, Arabic, Tagalog or Vietnamese. (Persian may be an exception; I remember reading the Rubayyat).

Brockmann, finally, warns that “one should never underestimate the role that ethnic and cultural heritage play in students’ choice of foreign languages,” suggesting that German-American immigration explains the importance of German in American education. This argument, however, strongly supports USC’s decision to abolish German. The University of Southern California, after all, is located in Los Angeles, a city whose German speakers (29,002 in 2000) are outnumbered by speakers of Arabic (37,148), Armenian (138,105), Persian (138,015), Tagalog (195,967) and Vietnamese (71,664). (See the Los Angeles Almanac.) The national prominence of German-Americans merely underscores that USC is justified in turning its resources to other ends: students wishing to study German, even in California, have no shortage of options.


Alexander Wellington is a lecturer in history at Victoria University, in Wellington, New Zealand.


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