Larry Summers Is Wrong About Languages
The argument that linguistic ignorance won't hold back future generations of Americans could have disastrous consequences for individuals -- and the nation, Michael E. Geisler argues.
Soon after 9/11, Mike Wallace, then still the most hard-hitting reporter for “60 Minutes,” sat down with several of the heads of the intelligence community to discuss how the worst terrorist attack in United States history could have happened. At the end of the interview, he asked each of the five or six section heads: “So, tell me, how’s your Arabic?”
Not surprisingly, not one of the section heads spoke Arabic although several had some Russian and one offered that he knew some Vietnamese. The story is worth remembering not because of the embarrassment it caused the interviewed section heads but because their helplessness was the result of a similarly misguided policy of linguistic ignorance as the one advocated by Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University and former secretary of the Treasury.
In his Jan. 20 essay in The New York Times, “What You (Really) Need to Know,” Summers dismisses several skills as being irrelevant for future generations of Americans -- including any thoroughgoing knowledge of foreign languages. He claims that “English’s emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world, make it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile.”
Consequently, he recommends that the federal government save the expense needed to educate students in foreign languages.
The implications of this proposal, obviously made to provoke and grab headlines, deserve more consideration than Professor Summers gave them in his essay. Since then, many have raised their voice in opposition to Professor Summers’ proposal, based on the need for foreign languages as part of the humanities, as well as our students’ cognitive development and global outlook. I would like to re-emphasize some of these arguments, and then go a step beyond them to bring in a perspective that I believe has not been sufficiently articulated.
Contrary to what Professor Summers claims in his piece (i.e., that studying a foreign language learning has no practical uses), we know that bilingualism, particularly if it started at an early age, has demonstrable cognitive benefits:
It improves scores in math and language arts, verbal skills (in the foreign language and in English!), it tends to improve SAT scores, it is positively correlated with higher performance in college, it improves memory and, at the other end of our lifelong learning trajectory, it helps offset age-related memory loss.
We also know that students who have acquired a foreign language (or two) tend to be more successful problem solvers (since they have had to learn how to look at any given issue from multiple perspectives).
There are large and very significant bodies of knowledge in any foreign culture that are simply not accessible to speakers who have not mastered the language. Years ago, when I directed the Middlebury program at a major German university, I was invited to attend a universitywide symposium on "Internationalization" – which was really about teaching some courses in the sciences and in economics in English. There was a lively dialogue on this proposal -- until a colleague from the Law School got up and said "I don't know what you are talking about. None of our courses are accessible to being taught in English. The law is tied to very specific meanings in language. And that language, for legal purposes, is German."
I take it as a given that Professor Summers does not care much for the humanities in general or the teaching of literature in particular, and it is probably safe to assume that he has even less interest in major works of literature from other cultures and civilizations (which are becoming less and less available in English every year because fewer and fewer foreign major foreign works are being translated into English every year). If it is true that reading major works of literature or philosophy enhances students' skills in writing, in rhetoric, and in both framing and analyzing the logic and narrative of an argument or a document, then it follows that being able to do so in a foreign language broadens these skills, adding entirely new epistemologies to their intellectual repertoire.
Yet even if he does not care much for literature or the humanities, Professor Summers may wish to consider the loss to colleagues in the social sciences, in history, psychology, communications, international law, international public health (indeed any subdiscipline that has added the prefix "international" to its field of expertise), journalism, or the arts. In all of these academic disciplines (and we could easily add more to this list) researchers without access to original materials who do not possess at least a reading knowledge of one or two foreign languages will at best have to wait years or decades for English translations of paradigm-changing works, or, in the worst-case scenario, will never be able to access critical documents at all, if they are written only in a foreign language and have not been translated into English (which actually happens a lot more than you might think!).
Presumably, all of these academic and intellectual losses are simply collateral damage in Professor Summers' financial model.
So let's look instead at some very practical implications Summers’ proposal would have on our international competitiveness and on national security.
As was the case after 9/11, the intelligence community will be left to scramble to find trained language specialists in whatever “critical language” is needed whenever America fights an overseas war or terrorists attack the U.S. from some new, unexpected corner of the globe. It’s highly unlikely these groups will use “global English” to communicate with one other, so the intelligence community will be at a severe disadvantage in monitoring the “chatter” out there.
Likewise, U.S. forces abroad will be hindered in their efforts to gather good intelligence at the local and regional levels. The armed forces are currently working to enhance the foreign language skills of U.S. soldiers who are deployed in multiple locations around the world so they can communicate with local populations. If Professor Summers had his way, this campaign would have to be scuttled. Remember, too, that there is no guarantee that residents of Afghan or Iraqi villages speak “global English.” This will make it more difficult for U.S. forces abroad to get good intelligence on local and regional issues and risks, let alone engage in a “hearts and minds” campaign.
On the economic front of international business, significant numbers of U.S. jobs would likely be lost to bilingual or trilingual competitors from overseas. As Senator Paul Simon reminded us in his 1980 book The Tongue-Tied American, 200,000 jobs are lost each year by Americans because they are not able to speak a foreign language. Simon’s book was written before the Berlin Wall came down, before the recent massive wave of globalization hit, before the rise of India, China, and Brazil, and so the economic imperatives for speaking multiple languages are even stronger today. As business writer Edward Trimnell, points out in “Why You Need a Foreign Language & How to Learn One,” Americans have difficulty competing for jobs in some multinational corporations because “few can fulfill the bilingual requirements.”
American business personnel operating abroad who do not speak the language of the country they are in will be limited to executive-level conversations. They will not fully understand the social, cultural and political issues in of the target country. They may have translators who speak English, but they could be excluded from conversations their business associates have in their own language (sometimes even in their presence), which will put them at a strategic disadvantage.
This brings us to another myth of “global English”: speaking English is not the same as being truly proficient in English. Many non-native speakers of English around the globe speak enough English to get by, but perceive it as a strain and revert to their own language at any opportunity. They are thus likely to revert to their mother tongue in the presence of other speakers of that language, leaving monolingual Americans struggling to keep up with the conversation even if there is an interpreter present.
Assuming that you wish to “localize” your product (market it in ways that appeal to local tastes, values, and attitudes), you need to be able to understand some of the media discourse (television, newspapers, other branding and marketing campaigns) — and none of this happens in English.
There is also the issue of etiquette. Professor Summers believes that courtesy towards native speakers of other languages should be dispensed with in the interest of budget savings. Signaling to one’s interlocutors from another culture that one cannot be bothered to interact with them in their language, even when meeting them on their home turf, is deeply offensive to many cultures.
Finally, global languages change as geopolitical power structures shift. Before English, there was French, Latin, Greek and in many parts of the world also Arabic. The speakers of each of these languages, in turn, thought that theirs was the “natural” lingua franca, very much like Americans do now. Some people believe that Chinese will be the next lingua franca, or it could be Spanish — who knows? The only thing that is certain is that purposely reducing our already impoverished linguistic reservoir would be a very bad investment in the future of our country.
Instead, what we Americans need is a national discussion about a strategic language reserve, a stable cadre of speakers of the world’s 10 or 20 most important languages: what it means, how we can deliver it, and how it can be produced in a sustainable and cost-effective way.
We should have a national conversation as to whether our scattershot approach to teaching the most important world languages is the most effective and cost-efficient way of educating current students and we should talk about where foreign languages fit best into a college or university curriculum. We should also review foreign language curriculums and the training of graduate students in that field, and perhaps make adjustments in pedagogical approaches to serve the nation’s linguistic needs.
We should strengthen area studies, which were de-emphasized when social science departments across the country decided to focus on theory instead of specific country expertise, and we need to make sure that there are curricular connections between foreign language expertise and area studies expertise.
We need to continue our efforts to send more American students abroad. At the same time, we need to ask ourselves what kinds of abroad experience our students have: are they experiencing the foreign culture through the opaque windows of an “island program” (where they are taught in English by American faculty flown in from the U.S. and barely, if ever, interact with the local population), or are they fully immersed and integrated into the culture they are studying? If we want the latter, this includes some knowledge of the language. We also need to develop ways of measuring the outcomes of this intercultural encounter.
Most importantly, we must continue the conversation about foreign language education in K to 12 classrooms, and figure out how to make language study affordable even earlier and how to make that happen through delivery systems that are scalable and affordable for most school districts. The earlier our children get exposed to foreign languages, the stronger are the cognitive benefits and the better is their retention. Children who are exposed to foreign languages early on will also be more motivated to continue it later on as students and will find it easier to do so.
What we can ill afford, however, is another era of “know-nothing” linguistic isolationism. The costs for that, in terms of America’s international relations, prestige, and ability to access information would be very high indeed, particularly as new poles of economic growth emerge around the world and the relative power of the United States declines.
Michael E. Geisler is vice president for language schools, schools abroad, and graduate programs at Middlebury College.
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