Which Languages Should Liberal Arts Be About in 2010?

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JOHN MCWHORTER DECEMBER 13, 2010

Which Languages Should Liberal Arts Be About in 2010?

We are to bemoan that universities across the country are eliminating or scaling back their foreign language departments. Or, what seems to arouse critics most is the disappearance of French, German, and Italian departments—what with Goethe, Balzac and Dante being pillars of a liberal arts education and so on.

Yet, former French major and great fan of foreign language learning as I am, I’m not feeling as bad about this new trend as I am supposed to. I have as deep-seated a sense as anyone that an educated person is supposed to be able to at least fake a conversation in French. But then I also have a deep-seated sense that the driver’s seat in a car should be on the left side. It’s all I’ve known, but hardly the choice all humans would make if designing a car from scratch with no cultural preconceptions.

Out of the 6000 languages in the world, why is it so vital for smart people to learn the one spoken in one small European country of ever-waning influence and its former colonies? Isn’t the sense of French as a keystone of an education a legacy of when few met foreigners who spoke non-European languages, French was educated Europe’s lingua franca, and the elite who went to college often had plans to do the Grand Tour?

That is, is knowing French really so obviously central to engaging what we know in 2010 as the world, or is it that French is a kind of class marker? You know: two cars, a subscription to the Times, and mais oui, Caitlin knows some French?

The counterarguments are typically along the lines of this one from the Modern Language Association’s executive director, Rosemary Feal: “The plans of the State University of New York at Albany to deny students access to higher learning in three modern and two classical languages are a distressing reverse to the university’s recent efforts to promote global competencies. The advanced study of the languages, literatures, and cultures of the French-, Italian-, and Russian-speaking world are essential components of a liberal arts education in a university setting.”

I suppose she has to say that, but if the subject is, as she claims, “global” competency then we must ask why the languages in question are spoken in Europe, geographically a mere peninsula of Asia which, if the dice were rolled again, might not even be considered a continent. Sure, Europe has been the main cradle of Western thought – but let’s face it, you can be richly immersed in that via solid English translations; Nietzsche need not be read in the original. There’s an awful lot of world beyond Europe; people speak some languages there too, and in our times, a liberal arts education should focus on them.

Take Chinese, which increasing numbers of students are taking. A Martian would be baffled as to why anyone would think of French, German or Italian as more important for young Americans to learn than Chinese. Or—in response to the objection that no one is saying European languages are more important—let’s face it, the Martian wouldn’t understand why Chinese was not thought more important.

The issue is not that China will likely surpass the U.S. economically. When that happens, the world’s unofficial universal language will remain English: tradition plus the fact that English is easier for foreigners to get a grasp of and learn to read and write will make that so. However, there will still be ample use for people who can actually converse with the Chinese and read the language.

For example, it would appear that many technologies we create, such as ones to combat climate change, will increasingly be actually tested in China, whose political system is better at making real plans than ours and apparently will be for a long time. This will occasion an ever greater need for Chinese speakers for business purposes. The Chinese are also avidly interested in learning English, which will make teaching English in China as common a goal for young people as being an au pair girl in France used to be. China is happening, in a way that Italy is not.

In addition, as language goes, a solid education would expose people to how different languages can be despite all of them expressing the humanity common to all of us. Because English, as a European language, is built on the same general game plan as its relatives French, German and Italian, to love languages and concentrate on the grand old staples like French, German and Italian is like being an animal lover and only engaging varieties of cat. That may come as a surprise to those exposed only to those languages, but Chinese grammar is facsinatingly unlike anything European. Zhèi ge rén de huà shì kào bu zhù de a means “This person’s words are unreliable.” Word for word in Chinese it roughly goes “This person’s speech is a not-rely-hold-on-ness, you know.” Plus the words also have tones; get a tone wrong and you are saying, for example, horse instead of mother.  

Besides this, study Chinese and in many parts of the U.S. it will be easy to find people to practice with, as well as signs to parse and TV and radio stations to tune into. Meanwhile, how many Germans do you generally meet? Plenty, back in the day when German was America’s second language the way Spanish is now. But times have changed. Chinese is, in fact, now America’s third language, right after Spanish.

Or—should a modern liberal arts education cherish Italian over Arabic? More to the point, shouldn’t Arabic be seen as more urgent if there has to be a choice? The scarcity of government employees truly proficient in the language is well known. We will clearly have ample need for Arabic speakers to mediate between us and its Middle Eastern speakers for generations to come.

Commonly, a school will offer years-long, stepwise training in French but only offer a year’s worth of Arabic—and in that year, too often just learning how to read the script is given so much time that students barely command any grammar. Ask a student who’s been taking Arabic for a semester what she’s learned and you’ll likely find that decoding the writing has been the main meal and that she can barely express thoughts. That won’t do—and if there aren’t funds for both richer Arabic training and a major’s worth of the language of Stendhal, then I don’t see that Stendhal is unequivocally more important here. That is, here in 2010. I love French and I’ve read Stendhal. But last time I checked, some interesting things had been written in Arabic, too.

Then, as European languages go, there is also an argument for sparing Russian. It is often said that Latin is useful in teaching categories of grammar in a good old-fashioned way. Well, Russian, with its multiple cases and so very much else, is structured a lot more like Latin than French is, and gives students the exact same kind of grammatical workout as Latin – but with the advantage that it is often quite easy to find people to actually speak it with. Plus, Russians, like Italians and Japanese, tend to be generous about letting people butcher their language. No Latin, no Virgil—yes; but is someone who gets to The Brothers Karamazov and Chekhov in the original deprived compared to someone who can decode Catullus?

And again, suppose there aren’t funds for both: the issue is Chekhov or Catullus? Upon which: there was a time when the educated person was supposed to know Ancient Greek. Do we miss that, or see it as the fetish of a bygone era? Russian is a Latin you can actually speak with natives—and hear on the radio, and read on line.

There are, to be sure, western European languages more urgent to being a well-rounded modern than French and German. SUNY and other schools are sparing Spanish programs. But this is less because of a quest to inculcate young people with Cervantes than out of a demand that remains high, naturally, as Spanish is the native language of so very many people in our country. Cross-cultural communication is as important within the nation’s borders as it is for students taking years abroad, after all.

Should students be able to take French, German and Italian if they want to? Of course. But should it be expected that any university worth its salt have majors in those languages? I doubt it. A university of limited resources that has majors only in Chinese and Arabic should be a perfectly normal proposition. The only reason it does not seem so now is because of noble but fraying traditions.

The world is flatter and smaller by the hour. Our sense of which foreign languages are key to a serious education cannot be founded on what made sense for characters in Henry James novels.

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posted in: john mcwhorter, books and arts, the times, europe, rosemary feal, state university of new york

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