On the Importance of Learning a Second Language

Portrait caricatureThere is an article in today’s New York Times entitled “The Benefits of Failing at French” that reminds me of a debate in the Times back in 2011 entitled “Why Didn’t the U.S. Foresee the Arab Revolts?” Six scholars, academics, political appointees and think tankers debate the issue in The Times online. They all appear to believe it is very complicated.

Jennifer E. Sims, a professor and director of intelligence studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, thinks the problem is our over reliance on foreign assistance.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer, thinks it’s that we were captured by “group think.”

Vicki Divoll, a professor of U.S. government and constitutional development at the United States Naval Academy, the former general counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and assistant general counsel to the C.I.A., thinks the president is at fault for failing to allocate sufficient resources to the CIA. But then, on the other hand, she says “no amount of resources can predict the unknowable. Sometimes no one is to blame.”

Richard K. Betts, the Arnold A. Saltzman Professor of War and Peace Studies, director of the International Security Policy program at Columbia University and the author of Enemies of Intelligence: Knowledge and Power in American National Security, thinks the problem is that “it is impossible to know exactly what will catalyze a chain of events producing change.”

Celeste Ward Gventer associate director of the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, thinks the problem is that we’re too preoccupied with “foreign policy minutiae.”

Peter Bergen, the director of the national security studies program at the New America Foundation and is the author of “The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al-Qaeda,” thinks the explanation is as simple as that revolutions are unpredictable.

There is probably some small grain of truth in each of these rationalizations. I’m only a professor of philosophy, not a professor of political science, let alone a former governmental bureaucrat, political appointee, or think-tank fat cat. It seems pretty clear to me, however, that despite all the theories offered above, the real reason we didn’t see the revolts coming was good old-fashioned stupidity. That’s our strong suit in the U.S.–stupidity. We’re the most fiercely anti-intellectual of all the economically developed nations, and proud of it! We go on gut feelings. Oh yes, our elected officials even proudly proclaim this. We don’t think too much, and on those few occasions when we do, we’re really bad at it for lack of practice.

One of the great things about Americans is that they are probably the least nationalistic people in the world. Oh yeah, they trot out the flag on the fourth of July and for the Super Bowl, but that’s about it. A few crazy fascists brandish it throughout the year, but most people, except for a brief period after September 11,th pay no attention to them. Danes, in contrast, about whom I know a little because I lived there for eight years, plaster Danish flags all over everything. Stores put them in their windows when they have sales, they are standard decorations for almost every holiday and a must, in their small toothpick versions, for birthday cakes. This isn’t because they suffer from some sort of aesthetic deficiency that compels them to turn to this national symbol for want of any better idea of how to create a festive atmosphere. No, Danes throw Danish flags all over everything because they are incredibly nationalistic, as is about every other European and almost everyone else in the rest of the world who’s had to fight off the encroachment of foreign powers onto their national sovereignty. We’ve seldom, OK, really never, had to do that. Still, if we, you know, seriously studied European history, we would have something of an appreciation for how basic is nationalism to the psyches of most people in the world and we could use this as our point of departure for understanding the dynamics of international relations, as well as for appreciating the obstacles to our understanding of the internal dynamics of other countries.

Years ago, when I had just returned to the U.S. after having spent the previous eight years living in Denmark, I accompanied one of my former professors to a Phi Beta Kappa dinner in Philadelphia (he was the member, not I). The speaker that evening, was the former editor of the one-time illustrious Philadelphia Inquirer. His talk, apart from one offhand comment, was eminently forgettable. That one comment, however, left an indelible impression on me. This editor, whom I think was Robert Rosenthal, mentioned, at one point, that he did not think it was important for foreign correspondents to know the language of the country from which they were reporting because, as he explained, “you can always find someone who speaks English.”

How do you begin to challenge a statement of such colossal stupidity? It’s true, of course, that you can always, or at least nearly always, find a person who speaks English. I don’t mean to suggest that that’s not true. The problem is, if you don’t know the indigenous language, to use an expression from anthropology, then you really have no idea whether you are being told the whole story. And the thing is, if you ever do become fluent in a second language, and more or less assimilated into a culture into which you were not born, you will know that foreigners are never given the whole story. This was clear to me as a result of my having lived in Denmark, Denmark, a country with which we are on friendly terms, a country that in many ways is strikingly similar to the U.S. How much clearer ought it to be with respect to countries with which we are not on friendly terms, countries we know are either deeply ambivalent about us or outright hate us?

You will always get a story in English, certainly, from a native about what is going on in some other country, but if you don’t know the language of the people, then you aren’t really in a position to assess whether the story might be biased. You might have some idea of the social class of the person who is your source, but how are you going to know what the people as a whole think of this class, or of this individual? How are you going to know whether this person has some sort of personal or political agenda, or whether he is simply attempting to whitewash was is going on out of national pride, or a fear of being perceived by foreigners as powerless, or provincial, or intolerant?

This seems a fairly straightforward point, yet it is one that nearly all Americans miss. We generalize from our own experience. We assume everyone is just like we are, or just like we are taught to be, which usually means that we assume pretty much everyone in the world is motivated primarily by the objective of personal, material enrichment. We don’t really understand things such as cultural pride or what is, for so much of the rest of the world, the fierce desire for self-determination, so we are pretty much always taken by surprise when such things seems to motivate people. That’s the real meaning of “American exceptionalism,” an expression that is used in an increasing number of disciplines from law, to political science, to history with varying shades of meaning in each. That is, the real meaning is that our difference from the rest of the world is that we are dumber. Yes, that’s right, we are the dumbest f#*@!ing people on the face of the earth and just now, when we need so desperately to understand what is going on in other parts of the world, we are reducing, and in some instances even completely eliminating, the foreign language programs in our schools and universities.

It’s no great mystery why we didn’t foresee the Arab revolts. The mystery is why we seem incapable of learning from either history or our own experience. It doesn’t help for the writing to be on the wall if you can’t read the language.

(This piece originally appeared under the title “The Writing on the Wall” in the February 28, 2011 edition of Counterpunch)




22 responses

  1. I’d agree – I’m bilingual (and I did fail at French!) and I can say that there are way too many elements lost in translation (and conveniently hidden in some instances, as you’ve pointed out.) I still believe that if one is open-minded and inquisitive enough, they can still get to the crux of their inquiries in another country even through translators, but that requires the extra effort, doesn’t it?

    As an adult, I’ve found that an interesting backdoor entry to re-kindle my interest in other languages has been to read translations of literary works. Of course, ideally, it ought to occur naturally to me to seek out those who speak a different tongue. The thought of all that I’m missing out on (in my instance, the intricacies and nuances) is not dissimilar to what you had pointed out.

  2. Ohhh, I think you are sooo right!! And I would go one step further, you not only need to understand a foreign language, you need to dive deep into a culture to understand the cultural context of words, customs and actions and the fine nuances transported with them. Something that may be completely normal in your culture, may be very unpolite in another. But nobody will tell you to not make you feel bad. This can get even more complex, if a for you normal reference to something else, that seem out of place, or an odd saying, might transport a much much deeper meaning you may not be aware of if you don’t know the culture, less know the language.

    I speak out of own experience, married to somebody from another continent, different language but western culture as well. On the surface the culture seems so similar, so “western”.
    And now, 10 years of learning, living with my family-in-law for weeks, making friends during weeks and months staying there, many many hours of talks with my spouse, I finally have the feeling to really understand the mind of the people where she comes from. Oh how naive I was at that time! It is somehow embarrassing to think about it now.

    But the same applies to my wife. Living here for 10 years, she now really understands the German mindset and valuation of different aspects of life. Sometimes so much that I think she got too much “German” already. So much that she got already called a “Nazi” because she was of different opinion about cars (!) to a fellow countrymen, also an engineer, who knew she lives in Germany. She was so taken by surprise, she didn’t know how to answer. Literally shocked that this happened to her. Now she understands how easily as a German you get called a “Nazi” over any topic you don’t agree on by foreigners, something I always tried to explain to her that this happened to me or friends and colleagues already. Before that incident, she just said to shrug it off. But now she is as offended by this as most Germans are. It really hurts if your sincere opinion gets reduced to that!

    So, language is the absolute minimal tool to understand the basic message on the wall. But you need to dive into a culture complete, to get the real news and honest opinions from another country. All other is just a white-wash, a scratching on the surface, or a polite face shown to you but not the real thing, the real feelings about a difficult subject.
    I literally cringed by the comment you cited…

    By the way, somebody that was 2002 hinting at the Arabic revolutions was Emmanuel Todd. I came to read one of his books in the ongoing pursuit to understand the U.S. mindset better:

    Maybe you can give it a try, as the more time passed since I read it, the more all he said made sense, especially in the broader sense of general development of different cultures over centuries. But I must warn, it is not easy to read and may be for an American too critical with it’s own state of mind.

    Thank you for writing your post, as it made me curious to read more of your blog!

  3. I have married a woman from north cyprus and now live there, i presumed most people spoke english and now find my self working with turkish speakers, been english and of the lower classes i wasnt raised around traditional culture and have fallen in love with ottomon culture, even if they spoke engkish i now work hard to learn turkish, even with english speakers there is still confusion between us and with the rich history cyprus has everyone has an agenda to lesrn turkish is the only way i will learn about this country properly

  4. Compared to Canadians, I’d say Americans are very patriotic. But, I’ll have to agree with you, American patriotism seems prevalent especially around the holidays or when popular media provoke it. Wish there were a love-for-country deeper than mere tradition. Then again, it seems only loss can help us appreciate what we had.

  5. I completely agree with the importance of learning the language before you can expect to understand what is happening in some other country. And, not just learning it at the level of service messages—you can’t engage in deep conversations if you only know how to book a room or order a meal. When learning a language, you always discover there there is a multiplicity of ways to express a thought. It is only much later in your learning that you discover that some of the choices of word or expression also convey subtle cultural meanings.

    Another dimension of the problem is the difficulty of learning another language growing up in the USA. Like, I suspect, most other young people not living in large cities, I never heard any language other than English (outside of a high school language class) until I reached college. High school language classes won’t produce the understanding needed and there are few other opportunities to obtain it. Regular use of the language together with study is necessary—something our educational system is not geared to provide.

    • You are right about how difficult it is for Americans to learn another language. Many Europeans can travel in a few short hours to countries where languages other than their own are spoken and hence get plenty of opportunities to hone their skills in second, third, and even fourth languages. Americans don’t have those same kinds of opportunities. I’m not sure what can be done about that apart from increasing government support for study-abroad programs. Hopefully, however, the internet will be some help here because even if you can’t travel to, for example, France, you can easily get French language radio, movies and television via the internet and hence practice your French skills that way. It isn’t the same thing, of course, as interactive exposure to other languages, but it’s better that nothing.

  6. I tried learning French before, found it easier to learn than other languages. Perhaps, it’s because what interested me the most and how I wish I can continue studying until I am fluent. But unlike most people here, I’m not a native English speaker. I am Filipino but English here is learned at a very young age. I don’t say my English is perfect but I fail most in Filipino grammar and some Tagalog words aren’t familiar to me. I grew up speaking Tagalog anyway but also my local dialect Ilocano. Go figure.

    • Thanks for this comment. You are really lucky to have had the opportunity to learn more than one language. We really need to increase the amount of foreign-language instruction in public schools in the U.S. Given the growing number of Spanish-speaking people in the U.S., we should probably be teaching EVERYONE Spanish in grade school. That would not only improve cross-cultural understanding. It would make it easier for Americans to learn other languages later in life (e.g., French or German in high school or college) because instruction in a second language makes acquisition of a third and fourth language, etc., easier. Again, good for you!

      • Well everyone can learn any language they are interested..but true, schools (anywhere) must learn other languages, too. We Filipinos are fortunate to have English included in our educational system. I’ve seen the disadvantages from other Asian countries. Others tried to preserve what they have, but now many are learning because it’s important for their career. For example, Koreans were used to being loyal to their language, but now it’s changed. Students are going overseas to learn English, native English teachers are in demand in S. Korea, many Koreans also come in the Philippines to learn English because it’s cheaper here lol. If we didn’t learn English, I guess we’ll end up just like them. So I’m thankful we have English here. Salamat (thank you)

  7. I’m going to agree with you on the value of learning a second language, but for partially different reasons. A second language is almost necessarily a second way of thinking and that has valuable effects in all sorts of areas – ambiguity tolerance, resourcefulness, creativity and a million other things.

    As for nationalism being something that only Americans can’t understand, I’m going to respectfully call bull. My Korean college students, for example, are very good at expressing their nationalistic desires to wrest two tiny rocks (Dokdo) from the control of the always evil Japanese. Ask them why the Japanese claim control of these rocks and you will get an answer no better than if you asked the average American about al Qaeda’s greivances with the US – which is to say absolute horseshit at best.

    I’ve asked Japanese citizens similar questions. They’re awesome at telling me how brave their leaders were and how awesome their culture is but curiously silent on why all their neighbors hate them.

    Perhaps this is because the entire point of patriotism is to defeat empathy. To phrase it only a little differently, flags are designed to make us commit stupid acts we would otherwise never think of doing.

    Thanks for the interesting article,

    • Thanks for this comment. I don’t think we disagree. What you gave are examples of nationalism, not of a failure to understand it. Even if they were examples of a failure to understand nationalism, however, that wouldn’t refute my claim that Americans are particularly bad at understanding nationalism because I never said they were the only people who had difficulty understanding it. What I said was that they were among the peoples who had the least understanding of it.

  8. As a high school student, I was especially interested by your post because I relate it directly to how students are taught foreign languages from grades 7-12 in America. I live in a State where it is required to take at least 3 years of a foreign language to graduate. As you might imagine, in 3 years barely anything except for rudimentary phrases which can be picked up in a phrasebook are apprehended. Even with students in AP language classes who have been taking a language for 6 years now, fluency is hard to find, much less any semblance of cultural understanding of the people who speak the language. I believe that this inability to become bilingual (which students all over the world are practically forced to become) is not due so much to stupidity on the teacher or the student, but on laziness and lack of desire to learn. The attitude seems to be: Let everyone else learn English if they wish to communicate with us!

    • Sadly, there is a lot of truth to what you say. It doesn’t help, though, that most Americans have few opportunities to actually use a second language (unless it is Spanish). If the U.S. were closer, physically, to countries where they spoke languages other than English, I think more Americans would be motivated to learn a second language. Trying to motivate Americans to learn a second language is kind of like motivating people to learn to ice skate when there is no skating rink in their area. It’s hard. Still, this not knowing other languages is a serious problem in the U.S., so we have got to find some way to motivate people, even if it is hard. Thanks for the comment!

  9. Wow. This is from a college professor? No facts, no figures, no carefully considered and skillfully argued points? This is nothing more than the rant pg a 16-year old with narcissistic personality disorder. If Americans are the “dumbest f#*@!ing people on the face of the earth,” (very elegantly put) then your students must make up a good portion of the offenders. I assume your C.V. is just a selfie of you flipping off the camera.

  10. Thank you for this piece. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve studied 7 foreign languages and have had limited success with 5; they all need more study.

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