Lawrence Summers, noted economist and the former president of Harvard University, suggested earlier this year in a NYT op-ed that it’s time to end the foreign language requirement at American universities.
“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.”
Language lover Mary Hawthorne of the New Yorker found Summers’s statement “so astonishing, and, in its strange way, fascinating,” that she contacted some translation notables to get their opinion. “I wrote to David Bellos, Lydia Davis, and Arthur Goldhammer.”
The responses of these linguists are fascinating, and wholly predictable. For those of us who have carved careers in multiple languages, the practical benefits are obvious and the experiences gained are life changing.
Yet so many compulsory language students fall along the way, and all those hours spent on conjugations and drills flee the memory of reluctant students as soon as the last test is taken. I remember so well the white-hot drudgery of high school French, where time itself shifted, seconds morphing into minutes as the clock slowly counted down to the bell. I lacked motivation since all the girls in my class preferred to speak English.
Back to Hawthorne, who describes riding the 7 train back to Queens, wishing she “knew what all the people around me were saying and reading, in Spanish, Korean, Russian, Chinese, Urdu, Bengali, Tagalog, Pashto.” A noble aspiration, but a lot of hours in the language lab to get there. Commentor Bikepretty asks, “Have none… had the experience where all the beauty gets sucked out of a language once you understand what asinine things most people talk about?”
I was telling a Thai-speaking friend of mine how much I enjoyed that country. He said, “Well of course you like it. But I understand what they are saying.”
Comprehending the banal comes first to students of a second language. The poets, the great writers, even the daily news remain out of reach long after a student can get around in the grocery store. The big payoff from language study comes only at the end of 2500 hours or so of serious candle-burning. It’s a numbers game. And so many fall by the way, all those hours spent for naught.
This last week, I took my daughter Izzi and her friend Eugénie (aka Django, since I still can’t pronounce French) on a tour of California colleges, with a camping side trip in the Sierra Nevada. Highlight of our California tour was not the Stanford or UCLA, but at a campfire outside of Yosemite, where the girls ran into a group of French kids in a study-abroad program, and Django had a chance to hang with them in French, which she had acquired from summer cousins in Brittany and some serious high school study. Then some Japanese exchange students showed up, and gave Izzi, with the same kind of background in Japanese, the same kind of priceless experience. Anyone who has mastered a second language will recall the frisson a second language adds to chance encounters on the road. (Tell us your stories)
Meanwhile, as these kids exchange laughs and smores around the campfire, the monoglots are plopped in their RVs, entranced by the flickering electronic flames of satellite TV, suggesting that there are perhaps greater wastes of time than futile language study.
Addendum: Thanks to Django, I was able to advance my own French studies, and can now pronounce “pour l’encouragement des autres” like Voltaire himself. A useful management concept, and proof that there is hope for all language students, no matter how execrable they may be.