To Understand a Culture, Learn Its Language

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Mar 22 14:26:37 UTC 2006
>>From the issue dated March 24, 2006

To Understand a Culture, Learn Its Language

Some educators were politely enthusiastic when, in January, the Bush
administration announced a new program to support student and faculty
exchanges with foreign countries, as well as increased teaching of foreign
languages in the United States. But others in academe greeted the news
with a certain amount of cynicism, or even outright suspicion. They felt
that, had such a program been started years ago, we might be in a better
situation today vis--vis the Middle East, Muslim nations, and even our
allies. Some thought that the $114-million set aside to support the
teaching of "critical" languages like Arabic, Chinese, and Farsi was only
a drop in the bucket. Some were uncomfortable about the defense-related
agenda that was driving this new internationalism.

As a private citizen, I have a considerable degree of sympathy for all of
those objections. However, as a professional involved in foreign-language
education, I am concerned that a debate over motives and agendas, hidden
or overt, may itself prove to be an obstacle to language learning. It does
not matter whether the primary purpose of the program is to provide the
U.S. intelligence agencies and military with better linguistic expertise,
which might conceivably be used to interfere in the internal affairs of
other countries or to support American global hegemony.  Studying other
peoples' languages and cultures will be a positive force in history, no
matter what the intentions of those who support the program.  That is part
of what Hegel, in his Philosophy of History, called "the cunning irony of
reason"  the notion that putting enlightened ideas into practice, for
whatever purposes, will ultimately result in enlightened ends.

Twice in the past, the United States mounted a sweeping effort to enhance
Americans' language skills for primarily military reasons. The results in
both cases were such that even the most liberal academics would have to
approve of the measures in retrospect. First, during World War II, the
military made a huge investment in training specialists in German and
Japanese, both for intelligence purposes and in preparation for postwar
occupation and "re-education."  That is one of the major and decisive
differences between the aftermaths of the two world wars. In
contradistinction to the spirit of the Treaty of Versailles, whose primary
purposes were to humiliate Germany and recoup the financial cost of the
war from the Germans, after World War II, the Allies realized that helping
the Germans and Japanese build more-stable democracies would be a better
strategy for preventing future wars.

That strategy, carried out with the help of thousands of trained
interpreters and cultural experts who spoke German and Japanese, succeeded
beyond anybody's wildest imagination at the time. Germany and Japan have
since become solidly democratic nations and respected members of the
international community. That would not have been possible without the
help provided by German- and Japanese-speaking Americans, who were able to
show the people in the defeated countries a genuine vision of democratic
change and the benefits of including all members of society in the
political process. Second, after the Soviets launched Sputnik, the U.S.
government made a large investment in the training of Russian linguists
and professionals in other disciplines with expertise in the Soviet Union.
Those experts probably made a significant contribution to keeping the cold
war from heating up at various times, and perhaps even to nurturing
perestroika.  They certainly have been heavily involved in building strong
political and economic links between the United States and Russia since
the fall of the Soviet Union.

Both those projects were driven primarily by military agendas; both
produced results that even dyed-in-the-wool pacifists should applaud. That
was no coincidence, given that in both cases the defense agenda was driven
by a foreign-policy agenda that had learned an important lesson from the
end of World War I: Without the ability to communicate with people who (as
was the case in Germany and Japan during World War II) have a radically
different mind-set from your own, genuine changes in the geopolitical
landscape will not be possible. Many of us who are involved in
foreign-language teaching have, at some point or another, made the
argument that just learning a foreign language contributes to
intercultural understanding. The reason is that with our comprehension of
another people's linguistic makeup comes a better understanding of their
mentality; the two are inextricably interwoven. We should not suddenly
lose faith in that argument just because this latest opportunity to
enhance intercultural dialogue comes from a source with an agenda that
many of us may disagree with.

I prefer educated military and intelligence officials to uneducated ones,
and foreign-language skills are definitely part of the education I
support. A soldier who speaks the language of the foreign country in which
he or she is stationed  whether the reason for the U.S. military presence
there is good or bad  is more likely to ask questions first and shoot
later than a soldier who does not. An officer who has undergone the kind
of training in language or area studies that the Bush administration is
now proposing will almost certainly make wiser decisions with regard to
the civilian population than one who relies solely on his or her own set
of cultural parameters.

In addition, many members of the military join the civilian work force
after their retirement from active duty. Those who have acquired and
practiced foreign-language and area-studies skills could contribute
enormously to foreign-language education in the United States and, thus,
to intercultural dialogue.

Those retired officers would make a quantitative difference, increasing
the numbers of foreign-language teachers in this country. They would also
probably make a qualitative difference because they could pass on to their
students (whether inside the military or not) the intercultural skills
they had acquired. Retirees who never learned such skills would pass on a
very different set of tools, more likely geared toward traditional
military purposes.

At the Middlebury College Language Schools and our new affiliate, the
Monterey Institute of International Studies, there is a long tradition of
teaching members of the military and intelligence agencies and traditional
students in the same courses on foreign languages and foreign-language
pedagogy. At Middlebury we ask those who normally carry side arms to put
them aside for the duration of their training with us, but that is the
only way in which we treat them differently from our (more numerous)
civilian students.

We are proud of that tradition because we believe that teaching foreign
languages and cultures, and other subjects in area studies, will
inevitably lead to long-term improvements in communication among
countries. That is a strategic aim all Americans should be glad to
support, no matter how we feel about the economic, political, or military
interests that drive the initial effort.

Michael E. Geisler is dean of the Language Schools and the Schools Abroad
program, and a professor of German, at Middlebury College. He is editor of
National Symbols, Fractured Identities: Contesting the National Narrative
(University Press of New England, 2005).
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 52, Issue 29, Page B11

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list