It's All Just Greek to Me

In a sense, I can understand why some people might turn against a requirement for foreign languages in college. In an age dominated by technology, and by the pidgin English language that comes with it, why should we, one might ask, waste our time learning Spanish or Russian? Wouldn’t that time be more sensibly used learning yet another computer language or some Internet skills?

Jennifer Myer

This opinion (which, believe me, is far from hypothetical) reveals some serious misconceptions about the role of education and its place in today’s society.

An example of these misconceptions is the confusion between education and job training, and the reduction of the former to the latter. To assume that one’s goal in college is only to learn the skills necessary to find a well-paying job is a common, but hopelessly narrow statement.

Education is, or should be, a way of creating curious, open-minded, critical people with a decent amount of cultural awareness and the capacity to acquire more. This distinction is more important than it might look at first.

This country ostensibly professes freedom, but freedom entails choice, and choice entails the capacity to critically analyze the cultural and economic messages that society sends us, lest freedom be reduced to an empty shell in which we only choose what we are brainwashed to choose. To the extent that culture is necessary for freedom, so is education in a sense that transcends job training.

This consideration brings my somewhat lengthy preamble to the point of the study of foreign languages. For it is true that job training, especially in technical fields, would not require the knowledge of any foreign language (it doesn’t even require a real knowledge of the English language), but it is also true that our cultural environment is sending us increasingly multicultural and fragmented signals that can only be analyzed using sophisticated cultural instruments, many of which are multilingual.

To the extent that college education should be primarily cultural, it is fitting that society acknowledges the changed cultural landscape and imposes some language requirements as part of the normal educational process.

There will certainly be a legitimate desire to know why, of all the forms that multiculturalism is taking, universities should privilege the linguistic. After all, 20th century media have been primarily visual, and even now the race toward anything multimedia is favoring visual (and, maybe, in a near future, haptic) modes of expression. We can expect that the intercultural influence will often take the form of visual arts, like paintings, cinema, or video; can’t we be just as well-immersed in the multicultural flow without having to learn any languages?

I will surmise that language is not just another medium through which a certain type of content is delivered. Language is the social construction par excellence, and it is the matrix in which cultural artifacts, even visual ones, are created.

It is not just that without Spanish one will be unable to fully enjoy a Garcia Marquez novel; it is that without Spanish and the knowledge of Hispanic culture that comes with it, one will only be able to have a partial understanding even of the visual work of Diego Rivera. It is not just that without French one will be unable to appreciate a Chabrol film; it is also that without knowing a little French, one will find it hard to understand the environment in which surrealism flourished.

The list could go on indefinitely and, of course, one cannot learn all of the languages spoken in the world. Tough choices are necessary, but one has to start somewhere.

To be an attentive, critical and aware actor in today’s world, the horizon of one nation or one culture is too short. Universities would give students a disservice if they didn’t include the knowledge of languages with basic requirements like knowing English and mathematics.

In a few words: A multilingual culture has become a de facto requirement for any educated person, and it is time to include it as an essential requirement of any college career.

The possibility of talking to people using their own language makes life in a multi-ethnic environment such as San Diego much more stimulating, and I must admit that my Spanish-speaking friends were a large part of my initial impulse to study Spanish. This is not to mention the deliciously useless pleasure of knowing, for instance, that the French word for “”man”” is “”homme,”” which comes from the Latin “”humus,”” meaning “”earth,”” signaling the earthly essence of man as opposed to the spiritual essence of the divinity.

These factoids will not help me in my job and will not make any money for me, but I find them fascinating.

The question, if anything, is this: Why wait as late as college to impose a foreign language requirement at a time when most developed countries are introducing foreign languages as early as first grade? French, German and Dutch students leave high school with seven to 10 years of exposure to one or two foreign languages. Given the condition of American high schools, I doubt that such a solution would be feasible here. So, as a temporary solution, it makes sense to postpone the language requirement until college.

Finally, if I can have the presumption to give some advice to UCSD administrators, I would suggest that they make the requirement particularly pressing for science and engineering majors. Whether we like it, engineering activities have a great weight in this technology-dominated society. At the same time, American engineers are singularly absent from the cultural and political debate around technology and the choices that it entails, due, at least in part, to the narrow education that they receive.

I am not saying that learning a foreign language, per se, will provide engineers with the necessary cultural preparation, but with languages comes the appreciation of a different social structure, and that will help a lot. It is probably not a coincidence that engineers and scientists in the countries I have mentioned above are much more involved than their American counterparts in the cultural and political life of their respective countries, and that none of the corresponding languages has a word for “”geek”” or “”nerd.””

We can have techno-geeks enamored with their gizmos and happy to spend the night in a lab, or critical, open-minded individuals. Learning a language will not bring us from one to the other, but it will at least be a step in the right direction.

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