[lg policy] The Real Reasons to Support Language Study

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jul 28 14:17:34 UTC 2009

The Real Reasons to Support Language Study


By Mauro F. Guillén

In an era of dwindling budgets, universities have identified language
programs as an area for possible cuts. Languages with few students are
being framed as luxuries that cannot be afforded during a time of
scarcity. The target is easy: Language instruction is delivered by
nontenured faculty members to a much greater extent than most other
subjects are. Some universities have even announced that entire
language departments might be eliminated as a way to, euphemistically,
realign resource allocation with emerging priorities. There is a
fundamental misunderstanding of the role that language learning should
play in undergraduate and graduate curricula, which could seriously
imperil the ability of the university to educate the students of the
21st century.

The conventional wisdom among university administrators is that
languages are helpful only as tools to achieve an end, such as being
able to live, work, or do research in countries where operating in
English is not an option. My casual conversations with parents of
students and with officials of external sources of support, including
government agencies and foundations, reveal a similarly limited view.
This stance is as shortsighted as it is widespread among the people
who make key decisions about resource allocation across disciplines
and programs, and among those who pay for our students' education.

For starters, research indicates that effective language instruction
must be culturally grounded. Acquiring a language involves learning
the culture or cultures intimately associated with it. Although
business students, for example, can operate in English in a large
number of countries, a deeper understanding of the cultures there
would enhance their performance as employees or entrepreneurs.
Interactions and negotiations in English may be possible, but there is
nothing like knowing the local language to become aware of the nuances
and the sensitivities involved in everyday life or work situations.

We also know from research and experience that acquiring another
language makes students better problem solvers, unleashing their
ability to identify problems, enriching the ways in which they search
and process information, and making them aware of issues and
perspectives that they would otherwise ignore. I have often observed
that students with exposure to two or more languages and cultures are
more creative in their thinking, especially when it comes to tackling
complex problems that do not have clear solutions.

Learners of languages, by exposing themselves to other cultures and
institutional arrangements, are more likely to see differences of
opinion and conflicts by approaching a problem from perspectives that
incorporate the values and norms of others as well as their own.
Knowledge of other languages also fosters tolerance and mutual
understanding. Language learning is thus much more than becoming
operational in an environment different than one's own. It is a
powerful way of appreciating and respecting the diversity of the

Another common misconception about the study of languages is that
globalization has reduced the market value of most of them while
increasing that of English, the lingua franca of business, science,
and technology. According to that logic, students would be wise to
invest their time and energy in other subjects once they have mastered
spoken and written English. While it is true that major multinational
companies use English at their most important meetings, I continue to
come across case-based evidence indicating that if you work for a
German, Japanese, Chinese, Swedish, or Brazilian company, you'd better
speak the language of the home country, or you will be at a
disadvantage when it comes to understanding the subtleties of
decision-making and advancing your career. English proficiency may
have become a necessary qualification for employment at most
multinational organizations, but it is certainly not sufficient to
pursue a successful professional career in an international context.
The argument that the market value of the English language is
increasing relative to the value of other languages, if pushed to its
logical extreme, would present native English speakers with a false
choice between allocating their energies to learning another language
and focusing on other academic subjects.

Many universities have lost touch with an evolving reality in the
international business world. Some undergraduate and graduate business
programs claim to offer an international education, in some cases
involving short study trips. But few integrate a rigorous course of
study in languages with standard business subjects. At the graduate
level, we have convinced ourselves that a one- or two-week trip to
meet business leaders in some country can be a substitute for the deep
study of at least one foreign language and culture. We are fooling
ourselves if we believe that a global management education consists of
short study trips instead of serious language instruction.

Students who are serious about engaging in a demanding activity,
whether learning to speak a language or play a musical instrument, are
more motivated to learn other subjects. The language learner is
undaunted by the difficulty of the task and eager to benefit from the
discipline that language instruction offers. I teach sociology and
management courses to undergraduate and graduate students. Those who
have knowledge of languages other than English tend to perform better.

By undermining the importance of learning other languages, we are
losing an opportunity to educate our students to be better citizens of
the world, and failing to provide them with the tools and mind-set
they need to understand and solve complex problems. Learning a
language exercises the mind and enriches the spirit. It is a
fundamentally humbling process by which students learn that their
culture and way of expressing it are relative, not absolute. That
perspective makes them more open to other points of view, and more
likely to avoid one-size-fits-all solutions to the problems of the

Mauro F. Guillén is director of the Joseph H. Lauder Institute of
Management and International Studies at the University of


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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