When I was in 7th Grade, I first heard the terms “definite article” and “indefinite article”–or rather, “l’article indefini” and “l’article defini.” It was in the first French class I took. I hadn’t learned about articles in English Language Arts courses in elementary school, and when I did diagrams of sentences and other grammar exercises in English in 7th and 8th Grade, the basics didn’t stick as well as they did in French class, which I took for the next five years and in college as well.
There’s a lesson. Foreign language study helps with the understanding of native language. It also deepens one’s sense of philology, etymology, phonetics, and idiomatic, slang, and formalized expression in general. To pinpoint a curious word in a text under study in a college literature class such as “deliberate” or “fabulous” and ask the students, “What is the etymology of that word?” and face blank stares is dispiriting. Not only do students not know the origins of the parts of the specific word, but they don’t know what etymology is.
Larry Summers wouldn’t worry about it, though. In his recent statement in the NY Times, “What You (Really) Need to Know,” in which Summers outlines the six principles/practices of education for the 21st Century, he writes this about foreign-language study:
“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.”
Yes, Summers is right that English is becoming the world’s first or second language. But this in no way diminishes the value of foreign language study as improving English competency in American students. If we had data for 12th Graders on reading and writing exams correlated with foreign-language course-taking, I would bet a bundle that higher foreign-language exposure went with higher reading/writing test scores. The question of improved English doesn’t come up here, though, and Summers doesn’t invoke any principles of English instruction, that minor concession “there is no gainsaying the insights that come with mastering a language” only begging the question. For Summers, the study of foreign languages is all about the foreign languages alone.
Indeed, the preceding paragraph makes his outlook explicit. There, Summers notes that cosmopolitanism and “international experiences” are crucial for American higher education, but the ordinary inference doesn’t follow, he says.
“It seems logical, too, that more in the way of language study be expected of students. I am not so sure.”
This is precisely because the globalization of English and machine-translators make international contact by American students and postgraduate workers feasible without facility with the contacted party’s language. This is to say that cultural, financial, political, or just plain personal contact can happen and thrive without mutual “language contact.”
This assumption is contrary to the deepest assumptions of the humanities, which regard language not just as a tool of communication, but as a repository or deep structure or sedimented bearer or loaded discourse . . . (you get the idea) of values, perceptions, expectations, beliefs, conventions, customs, metaphysics, mores . . . (again, you get the idea). Different languages impart different realities. Not that those realities are incommunicable, but that they are communicated best when each party has some experience of the other’s language.
“What You (Really) Need to Know” is an anti-humanist outlook on education, and the thinness of the assertions don’t make it any less deplorable. Summers’ examples are instructive–and astonishing. I cannot imagine any U.S. physician in Africa saying that some familiarity with local languages does not improve his or her care.