Foreign Language for Foreign Policy?

Russell A. Berman questions the way some defend foreign language study.

November 23, 2010

These are troubled times for language programs in the United States, which have been battered by irresponsible cutbacks at all levels. Despite the chatter about globalization and multilateralism that has dominated public discourse in recent years, leaders in government and policy circles continue to live in a bubble of their own making, imagining that we can be global while refusing to learn the languages or learn about the cultures of the rest of the world. So it was surely encouraging that Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a fixture of the foreign policy establishment, agreed to deliver the keynote address at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages Annual Convention in Boston on November 19.

Haass is a distinguished author, Oberlin- and Oxford-educated, and an influential voice in American debates. The good news is that in his talk, "Language as a Gateway to Global Communities," Haass expressed strong support for increased foreign language learning opportunities. He recognized the important work that language instructors undertake as well as the crucial connection between language and culture: language learning is not just technical mastery of grammar but rather, in his words, a "gateway" to a thorough understanding of other societies. We in the language learning community should take heed and be sure to build curriculums that provide systematic introductions to those histories, political systems, and ways of life. The Modern Language Association has made curricular recommendations along these lines in the report "Foreign Languages and Higher Education," which ACTFL President Eileen Glisan praised in her remarks that preceded the keynote address.

Haass claims that in an era of tight budgets, we need convincing arguments to rally support for languages. Of course that's true, but -- and this is the bad news -- despite his support for language as a gateway to other cultures, he countenances only a narrowly instrumental defense for foreign language learning, limited to two rationales: national security and global economy. At the risk of schematizing his account too severely, this means: more Arabic for national security and more Mandarin, Hindi, and, en passant, Korean for the economy. It appears that in his view the only compelling arguments for language-learning involve equipping individual Americans to be better vehicles of national interest as defined by Washington. In fact, at a revealing moment in the talk, Haass boiled his own position down to a neat choice: Fallujah or Firenze. We need more Arabic to do better in Fallujah , i.e., so we could have been more effective in the Iraq War (or could be in the next one?), and we need less Italian because Italy (to his mind) is a place that is only about culture.

In this argument, Italian — like other European languages — is a luxury. There was no mention of French as a global language, with its crucial presence in Africa and North America. Haass even seems to regard Spanish as just one more European language, except perhaps that it might be useful to manage instability in Mexico. Such arguments that reduce language learning to foreign policy objectives get too simple too quickly. And they run the risk of destroying the same foreign language learning agenda they claim to defend. Language learning in Haass's view ultimately becomes just a boot camp for our students to be better soldiers, more efficient in carrying out the projects of the foreign policy establishment. That program stands in stark contrast to a vision of language learning as part of an education of citizens who can think for themselves.

Haass’s account deserves attention: he is influential and thoughtful, and he is by no means alone in reducing the rationale for foreign language learning solely to national foreign policy needs. Yet why should all local educational decisions be subject to Washington approval? Moreover, given the poor track record of foreign policy leaders in anticipating national needs, why should we suddenly treat their analyses as the touchstone for curricular planning? And, finally, the contribution of language learning to student intellectual growth is too large, complex and dynamic to be squeezed onto the menu of skill sets the government imagines it might need in the future.

Yet even on his own instrumental terms, Haass seemed to get it wrong. If language learning were primarily about plugging into large economies more successfully, then we should be offering more Japanese and German (still two very big economies after all), but they barely showed up on his map.

The much more important issue involves getting beyond instrumental thinking altogether, at least in the educational sphere. Second language acquisition is a key component of education because it builds student ability in language as such. Students who do well in a second language do better in their first language. With the core language skills — abilities to speak and to listen, to read and to write — come higher-order capacities: to interpret and understand, to recognize cultural difference, and, yes, to appreciate traditions, including one’s own. Language learning is not just an instrumental skill, any more than one's writing ability is merely about learning to type on a keyboard. On the contrary, through language we become better thinkers, and that’s what education is about, at least outside Washington.


Russell A. Berman is vice president of the Modern Language Association and professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford University.


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