Can America Lead Without Learning Other Languages?
By Rosemary G. Feal
It’s no secret that these are troubled times for foreign language programs in the United States. Despite the historic high number of students taking languages other than English, some institutions are making choices to curtail or close programs, to take away opportunities to major in certain languages and, in the most benign version, to fail to invest in the structure necessary to sustain and grow languages as a field of study. Even with all the recent public rhetoric about globalization, some leaders on and off campus think that as a nation we can participate or even lead without having to learn the languages or know about the cultures of the rest of the world. It’s enough, they say, to study the economics, politics and histories of other nations and peoples — all in English — to function well on the global stage.
Except when it’s not. Every year since I have been in my current position at the Modern Language Association (MLA), I’ve been invited to one event or another staged by the Department of Defense, the Department of Education, the State Department or the Central Intelligence Agency (as well as by educational associations and other groups) to discuss the crisis in language education in this country. A crisis, I’m quick to point out, that these same government agencies have been decrying for as long as I’ve been alive (and probably before), from the Sputnik moment (the first one) to the tongue-tied American designation, to the “where are all the Arabic translators when we need them” lament. Unlike most other countries in the world, the United States has never come to accept that language capacity must be built in early grades, continued through secondary school, and developed at an advanced level in post-secondary institutions. This capacity should not center exclusively on the languages defined by Washington as essential to national security and economic interests. Our national language learning agenda should include emerging languages of interest in addition to — and not as substitutes for — the fields of study that make up much of the cultural history that has traditionally been the focus of a liberal arts education.
While there certainly is an instrumentalist argument to be made for language study, the primary aim of a college education is to provide much more than the practical tools one needs to find specific types of employment. When students take up a second (or third) language as language — informed by linguistics, language history, or cognitive studies — they learn more about their native language, they acquire higher levels of literacy, and they exercise brain circuitry in unique ways. In short, language learning is a laboratory for other learning. When students are immersed in the culture, literature, history, art and politics of the language they are studying, they can see themselves as others see them. They can build tolerance and appreciation of difference, and they inevitably become question askers rather than know-it-alls (this, of course, is a main purpose of pursuing higher education in general). Some students find that studying the language of their parents or grandparents gives them insights and understandings that are only possible through that avenue of knowledge acquisition.
Fortunately, students in United States institutions of higher education generally recognize the importance of language study, even if the infrastructure doesn’t fully support or sustain this important curricular area. In a survey based on enrollments in fall 2009 that included responses from 99 percent of U.S. colleges and universities where languages are taught, the MLA documented a new high: student enrollments in languages other than English grew to 1,682,627, an increase of 6.6 percent over the 2006 survey. Spanish, French and German still lead as the three most studied languages, but Japanese, Chinese and Arabic showed significant gains and ranked in the top ten (Arabic for the first time). Growth at two-year institutions was particularly notable (mirroring the growth in student population at community colleges in general), but at the graduate level enrollments declined in all spoken languages except Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Korean and some others. Between the cuts to language programs and the decline in graduate enrollments, we may be in for more narrowing of the language pipeline, a trend that will most likely land us right back to the next Washington summit on building capacity in all languages.
Finally, it should be noted that the United States continues to be a country in which languages other than English are spoken in the home in an astonishing variety, as shown on the MLA Language Map. As I write these words, I’m headed to Arizona State University, and I’m looking at the MLA Language Map to learn more about the state’s linguistic diversity. English is spoken in the home by 72.6 percent in Arizona, and most people would guess that Spanish is the next most frequently spoken language there (around 21.6 percent). But who knew that after Navajo, third on the list, German is the most common in-home language in that state? Or that a significant pocket of Korean-speakers reside in Santa Cruz County in southern Arizona? The United States contains (in both senses of the word) the world’s languages. Our colleges and universities can be the sites to build on that amazing heritage and to equip all our nation’s students with more than one language. Such an educational policy would require that we first recognize the singular and vital importance of not limiting our students to English only but instead of expanding our students’ intellectual horizons. Needless to say, that’s an educational policy for which we all should argue, in whatever language works.
Rosemary G. Feal (photo above) is the executive director of the Modern Language Association of America, a professional organization that works to strengthen the study and teaching of language and literature. This article was published in the spring 2011 issue of The Key Reporter.
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