{ Foreign Languages }

Larry Summers recently published an op-ed bemoaning the state of American higher education (hidebound, moribund) and suggesting how to fit it to this modern world (if you guessed 'technology,' you're right, but it wasn't very hard, was it?). The column (like the response I'm writing) is part of a long tradition in our newspapers' pages, and probably almost wrote itself (which is perhaps the most charitable explanation); Mark Taylor wrote a similar piece a couple years ago; it had the misfortune of metastasizing into a book, which was ably and enjoyably taken apart by David A. Bell.

Summers' piece had some obvious comments about re-arranging desks (or are they deck chairs?) and a silly one about the Canterbury Tales. But it was a more wrong-headed suggestion about learning foreign languages that stuck in my craw: "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. While there is no gainsaying the insights that come from mastering a language, it will over time become less essential in doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East."

This was particularly aggravating to me since Oberlin has just received major support from the Mellon Foundation to establish a Center for the Study of Foreign Languages and International Cultures. In comparison to our goals, Summers' essay is mortifyingly complacent, attempting a sort of benign linguistic imperialism that expects everyone else to do the heavy lifting. Even if he gestures to "the insights that come from mastering a language," one gets the sense that because Summers doesn't sense the absence of foreign languages from his life, he can't imagine their value. Now, Summers doesn't say that learning foreign languages is useless; he suggests only that they aren't "universally worthwhile." This is a lofty standard: what is universally worthwhile? math? if so, what level--does the calculus make the cut? What about evolutionary biology? And, more importantly, Summers frames his essay in terms of what colleges expect high school students to learn. So that's the true question he asks: should high school students learn foreign languages? And his answer is, probably not.

The Times used Summers' article to create a debate, and drew several respondents who address the utility of foreign languages. These respondents, writing from different perspectives, present a good array of reasons why knowing more than one language is worthwhile. But, academic that I am, I'd add some more.

Perhaps first would be empathy. My spoken French is not as polished as I wish; my spoken German is worse. When I speak in these languages I am keenly aware that I am unable to communicate my thoughts with the clarity and precision of my English. This inability at times creates the sensation of being a forty-four-year-old trapped in the vocabulary and syntax of a twelve-year-old: a voice in my head says (in English), "I know I'm smarter than I sound." This humbling experience can prevent you from underestimating others.

Several of the Times' respondents note that studying foreign languages is essential to learning another culture. Perhaps less recognized is the way that learning a foreign language teaches you a great deal about your own culture. I didn't know how American I was until I spent a semester in France. And it's not just the novel experience of being the foreigner which matters here. It's also the perspective you learn from those who speak another language; getting to see your own culture through their eyes helps you understand it and them. So, while knowing French allows me to follow the current French presidential campaign on Arthur Goldhammer's excellent blog about French politics, I find it even more illuminating to read about the American political campaign in the French press, as in this blog by two reporters for Libération.

Summers might wave all this aside, for this is culture, and he writes with a view to efficiency. But even here he misses the boat. For example, he calls for professors to emphasize collaboration in the classroom, because that's what the outside world values most: "An inevitable consequence of the knowledge explosion is that tasks will be carried out with far more collaboration.... [C]ollaboration is a much greater part of what workers do, what businesses do and what governments do." Foreign language classrooms lead the way in teaching and learning collaboratively. And, more importantly, learning a foreign language fosters all the skills required to collaborate--most notably, the ability to communicate--speaking and listening, understanding and empathizing. While I certainly don't want to to say that learning a foreign language is only worthwhile because it has concrete cash benefits, nor would I deny them. Thus, I also disagree with him on purely pragmatic lines about the value of foreign languages for doing "business in Asia." He sees English as sufficient. But at a time when Apple's consumers are troubled by how its suppliers treat workers in China, it is easy to see how the company would benefit from more staff who spoke Chinese and thus weren't dependent on Anglophone middlemen to let them know what was going on in their factories.

None of my objections thus far get at what I find most bothersome in Summers' essay. Summers writes with a keen assurance that he knows, now, in 2012, what future workers--in 2020 or 2030--will need most, and what they won't need at all. That assumption underestimates each student's unpredictable potential and denies them opportunities they might use. I offer myself as an example here. I just wrote a book on a Jean Fouquet, a fifteenth-century French artist. I usually think of this book as the result of decisions I made in college and graduate school: to study art history, instead of philosophy or anthropology; to study medieval art instead of ancient, Renaissance or modern; to study manuscripts instead of sculpture or architecture; to study art in France instead of Italy or Germany. But that last point didn't depend on decisions in grad school or college; instead, it depends on a decision I made in eighth grade at Dominion Junior High (now Middle School) in Columbus, Ohio. All eighth graders had to take a language; I took French. When I got to high school at Bishop Watterson and all ninth graders had to take a language, I kept it going, as I did when I got to Oberlin. This was not a matter of skill; I'm not particularly good at languages, and my performance was pretty average. But by my junior year I began to see its direct benefit on my art historical studies. At the time I gave credit to my college professors, and maybe my high school teachers; but now, prompted by Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco's post, I recognize that it was my junior high's language requirement that got the ball rolling. No one could have predicted in Madame Lendt's very rudimentary French class that I'd go on to write a book about a French artist--because the effects of education are unpredictable. The unpredictable results of making a broad education broadly available make me uneasy when folks like Larry Summers turn their thoughts to educational efficiency. He imagines that we have to choose between training workers and educating people. I disagree.


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{ Responses To This Entry }

One issue that Larry Summers did not address is, to me, at the core of the argument for language study: it's effect on brain development. Of course, the studies that show that are of young brains, following the theory that the pathways for language learning essentially are not as well developed in children who do not learn additional languages at a very young age. This same theory applies to learning music.
The rest is conjecture. Whatever else happens later in learning, an agile brain with well developed pathways can process information better. In a world where information is overly abundant, I think the case for language learning is very strong.

Posted by: Aviva Plaut on February 1, 2012 3:56 PM


That’s an excellent point, Aviva. The cognitive benefits of learning a second language early were a major motivation for Kim Faber, Instructor in Hispanic Studies, in founding SITES (Spanish in the elementary schools). You can read about the program here: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/7463724/SITES_in_Language_Educator_Nov10.pdf .

Posted by: Anonymous on February 1, 2012 6:18 PM


Sorry, I goofed about his time as Secretary of the Treasury. He served under Clinton, not Bush.

Posted by: Bill Inglis on February 2, 2012 12:33 AM


As a lifelong polyglot, linguistics nerd, and lover of cultural immersion whose parents are both linguistically inclined: thank you for this post. It means a lot to me to finally be at an institution that isn't writing off such a huge part of who I am and what I believe in.

Posted by: Ida on February 2, 2012 11:57 PM


Just wanted to say that I very much enjoyed this piece.

I'm only heading into my second semester at Oberlin, though I've fallen in love with studying Chinese language this past semester. Your words during orientation spurred my interest in foreign language study and you reaffirm its value (and remind me of my own enthusiasm) now.

Thank you.

Posted by: Patrick Gilfether on February 3, 2012 1:03 AM


I had the good fortune to participate in a trial program of Spanish classes in my elementary school, beginning in kindergarten. I've continued studying Spanish ever since, and can definitively say it's shaped my interests and life experiences. Since coming to Oberlin, I've had the opportunity to travel to Nicaragua and am currently studying on the US/ Mexico border. I lament that funding cuts ended the elementary school language program in my hometown, because I feel all kids should have the chance to learn another language. I'm glad this is something Oberlin cares about.

Posted by: Nora on February 7, 2012 12:10 AM


This is a great post. Indeed, language remains one of the most effective means we have to gain a substantial and informed understanding of global cultures. I do however feel that the current trend of accumulating languages based on the caprices of the global economic system has ignited an unhelpful obsession. It seems people are gravitating their focus towards memorizing characters and accents and have lost all concern for understanding the intricacies and social fibres of these cultures as they obsess with becoming fluent enough to pin down lucrative business deals.

Too often the West is quick to lambaste the actions of others using benchmarks borne out of a atubborn insistence that Western fundamentals are the faultless ideal.Western countries would do well to gain an understanding of why countries in the East operate in the manner that they do, why they uphold the practices they do, and how all this is informed by culture and traditions,social forces that are significantly more instructive in the East than the West. It is this knowledge which I believe is more pertinent than the languages themselves,for which translators and intermediators can always be employed to decode.

Posted by: Simba on February 7, 2012 1:01 AM


Simba, it has been my experience that the schools that do hold on to their language classes (and this is certainly true for Oberlin!) include as much cultural information as they can in their curricula, because good language teachers understand the inextricable natures of language and culture. Language classes, for me, have actually been refreshingly free of the ethnocentrism you describe, regardless of whether people take them out of love or out of a desire to turn their language skills into cash. So, even though there might be a push to learn foreign languages for business reasons, picking up cultural knowledge on the way is unavoidable. One needs more than correct grammar to communicate well, after all.

On that note, I would also like to point out that interpreters necessarily must decode as much culture as they do language, to do their jobs effectively - basically, I disagree that understanding cultures is more important than learning languages because I don't think it's possible to truly do the latter without the former. In fact, I think learning a language is a valuable key to understanding its culture, and not just because it means you can talk to its members.

Perhaps I've simply been fortunate not to have dealt with the kind of attitudes you've encountered, but I do hope you don't think all (or even most) Western polyglots and linguists are terribly ethnocentric.

Posted by: Ida on February 7, 2012 3:21 PM


This is a wonderful post, and you do a great job of ripping the article apart. I skimmed through it, and I would just put in my two cents on this particular line by Summers, which you discussed: "While there is no gainsaying the insights that come from mastering a language, it will over time become less essential in doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East." I can say for a fact that English will not help you to do business in many parts of Asia, and sitting around waiting for people to learn English, which is what I infer from Summer's point, is not likely to put you ahead of the game if you're looking to make business deals abroad. Moreover, particularly in the Middle East, there are a lot of patronage and kinship networks through which business and politics are played out; resolving conflicts in the Middle East would actually most certainly be a lot easier if you took the time to learn the language and communicate within such networks rather than sticking out like a sore thumb.

Posted by: Ruby Saha on February 7, 2012 4:42 PM


Thank you for writing this, Professor Inglis. Language is something that is unquestioned by K-12 education (and very nearly required by almost every higher ed institution as a prereq for application) -- you MUST take a particular offered class because that is what is required.

When I dipped my toes into French in high school, it was out of rebellion: I didn't want to take Spanish, so I ended up in the other class offered. Did it stick? Not exactly. Did I want to pursue it when here? Definitely not. I ended up taking Hebrew at Oberlin and even though I did not continue past my first class I found so refreshing that here, language is revered and encouraged, and you can study because you are interested in learning, not because you are forced to choose one of a limited number of required things.

I did grow up in a bilingual household, and while I do not use my second language regularly in my study (nor, sadly, in conversation) I am infinitely thankful that my parents encouraged it. And thus, it is fitting that my mother got around to commenting on this blog post before I managed to!

Posted by: Ma'ayan on February 7, 2012 4:49 PM


I agree with what Aviva wrote above and the research strongly supports the value of of a bilingual exposure in the very young (http://www2.ed.gov/teachers/how/early/earlylearnsummit02/kuhl.pdf). All the members of our household Aviva, Ma'ayan, Ben and myself were the beneficiaries of such an upbringing. What bothers me more about the stance Larry Summers takes is how American-centric it is. The world revolves less and less around what Americans think and do. Looking at the rest of the world you will not find the same acknowledgement of the inevitability of the 'triumph' of English. Not in Europe where most people speak four or more languages, and certainly not in the 3rd world where the educated speak a plethora of languages both local and international. We hosted two foreign exchange students during the last few years. Aziza, from Kyrgyzstan, spoke Kirghiz, Uzbec, Tajik, Russian, and English and while studying for a year in the USA took Spanish and Hawaiian. One of her dreams was manifested when we visited the United Nations in New York and spoke to our guide about what it might take for her to have a job like hers...it was the knowledge of a minimum of four major languages from the members of the permanent Security Council. Anna, from Vladivostok, spoke Russian, English and French and her major/specialty in college now is Chinese. Neither of these international students shied away from learning another language, and experiencing and embracing the ensuing cultural education. Who can argue how much richer an educational background they bring to their lives both personally and in the work that they will end up doing? In this context, in the greater world, is it any wonder that Larry Summers and his ilk render Americans less and less influential?

Posted by: Woody Plaut '71 on February 22, 2012 12:56 AM



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