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In Praise of Languages for Internationalization

The following is a guest post by Elspeth Jones, professor emerita of the internationalization of higher education at Leeds Metropolitan University, in Britain, and an international-education consultant.
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Last month, The New York Times published a provocative essay by Larry H. Summers which argued, amongst other things, that American college students don’t necessarily need to learn a second language. The spread of English globally, the fragmentation of other languages, and the improvement in translation technology, he writes, “make it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile.” I couldn’t disagree more.

Prompt responses from Nafsa: The Association of International Educators and others presented alternative viewpoints, but it is difficult to get across to those who speak only one language how greatly life is enriched through competence in another. There are many important reasons to study languages (the Centre for Languages, Linguistics, and Area Studies in the United Kingdom offers 700 of them) and those of us interested in the internationalization of higher education have special reason to argue the cause.

First, we cannot deny the economic importance of languages for global competitiveness, or indeed for national security and diplomacy. Sir Adam Roberts, president of the British Academy, argues that, “For the U.K. to thrive globally, it has to have a deep-rooted understanding of languages and cultures across the world.” Employers seem to agree, with a recent survey for the British Council demonstrating the varied requirements of different sectors. Overall, 39 percent of business leaders consider it important for potential employees to speak at least one language other than English, but this rises to 72 percent for those in the field of natural resources. So language graduates are highly employable in a range of fields and yet statistics indicate a substantial drop in U.K. university applications for language study (down by 11.2 percent for European and 21.5 percent for non-European languages). While there is criticism from some linguists of the so-called learn-to-earn approach of the U.K. government, there is no doubt that being able to function in another language enhances employability.

A second argument in favor of languages relates to cognitive development and flexibility; equally true for the population at large as for our students. Empirical evidence associates bilingualism in children with increased cognitive skills, multitasking, and prioritization, as well as certain perceptual and classification tasks. But fluency is not essential since studies also show that learning a second language at any age and speaking it regularly can both improve cognitive skills and delay the onset of dementia.

However, the third argument is perhaps the most important for those of us interested in international education. Language study encourages us to deconstruct the linguistic world as we know it, to tolerate ambiguity, and to embrace cultural “otherness.” It has long been argued that people think differently in different languages and that culture influences language, with bilinguals often recognizing this in themselves. “When I speak French, I am fully aware that I am not the same person as when I speak English”, says Jennie, a blogger who writes about language. Linguists understand that apparently direct translations are fraught with potential misunderstanding and we learn that cultural “others” may not see the world in the same way. For example, in French the word “chaise” designates a different range than the objects we would call “chair”; languages divide up the color spectrum differently with some having no word for green as distinct from blue–in Japan, you go on a “blue” traffic light; others use tenses differently–Malay uses adverbials instead of different verb forms to indicate past and future. It is this kind of disorientation and negotiation of meaning that helps to break down linguistic and cultural ethnocentrism through challenging the perspectives that we view as normal, helping us “doubt the superiority of our own cultural values,” as Robert Selby put it, and questioning established notions of personal identity.

Why does all this matter for internationalization? One aspect of comprehensive internationalization is the development of cross-cultural capability or intercultural competence for domestic students, offering alternative global perspectives, and challenging cultural assumptions and stereotypes. Fluency in another language takes us beyond mere tolerance of “otherness” and requires us to engage with alternative worldviews as a matter of course. In contrast, the kind of machine translation espoused by Mr. Summers lacks cultural context and can only offer elementary linguistic understanding.

It does not automatically follow that cross-cultural capability will result from speaking another language, nor am I arguing that monolinguals are incapable of intercultural competence. However, the contribution of language study to the development of alternative perspectives, and to internationalization more broadly, means that we “internationalists” should be concerned when others seek to undermine its value.

Language study in Anglophone countries is in need of a public-relations offensive. The beleaguered campaigning organizations are often under great pressure to defend their discipline in the face of government cuts and public apathy. Language-studies supporters in the United States and in the United Kingdom, like Speak to the Future, have their work cut out as, no doubt, does the Languages and Cultures Network for Australian Universities. The languages lobby needs proponents, not detractors, who will help to emphasize the value of languages. In an excellent essay that seeks to do just this, Will Hutton reinforces the cultural arguments in favor of languages. Quoting Martin Hoffman, he argues, “To speak a single language is to be enclosed in one cultural possibility–to be preordained to live in the linguistic and cultural cage into which you are born.”

Those who long for a Star Trek-like universal translator should bear in mind its limitations. The episode “Darmok” presents a dilemma that might give Mr. Summers pause for thought. In the show, an alien’s words are translated but no one understands what he is trying to say due to the use of metaphor and historical cultural references.  It takes all Captain Picard’s anthropological, cultural, and literary knowledge to interpret the allegory and grasp the meaning behind those words.

While extraterrestrials may seem a far-flung example, the lesson is clear: Universities interested in comprehensive internationalization need to provide language programs over translation tools. As Captain Picard might say, let us “make it so.”

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