Using English to understand a foreign culture

THE United States is experiencing one of its periodic alarms about the paucity of foreign language study among its youth. Critics point out that students abroad usually learn two or more languages while US students usually don't. Americans are told they are too provincial in their attitudes, often unwilling to support enlightened foreign policies and - currently - handicapped in developing a truly competitive economy. Although all of these charges may be true, foreign language study, per se, is not this country's crying need. For one thing, English has become the world's international language and there is less need for Americans to learn a second language than for other people to study English. But that's not the main point.

It is more important for students to understand foreign cultures than to gain the rather rudimentary knowledge of a foreign language which two years of college study usually produces.

For example, Americans need to understand the historical experiences and social environments which account for the attitudes and behavior patterns of the Russians and the Japanese; they are the people with whom our nation interacts in the most significant way.

Some good books on Japanese or Russian history and contemporary culture would yield vastly more useful information to college students than the equivalent amount of effort put into studying the Japanese or Russian language. (The same is true for high school students, most of whom will not go on to college.)

For the serious student who wishes to make an intensive study of either nation, there is, of course, no substitute for learning the language. But since only a very small percentage of students will engage in that kind of enterprise, it would be highly inefficient to expose large numbers of students to a language study program which usually gives them no more than an amateurish grasp of the language plus a much more limited knowledge of the culture than reading some good books written in English would do. The latter will not enable students to converse with Japanese or Russians but it will contribute substantially to an understanding of their attitudes and culture. Better understanding by as many Americans as possible is what really counts.

The same applies to other languages. Several first-rate books about Mexico and Central America would give the average student a much better grasp of the political and economic realities, and of the social attitudes of people, in these areas than equal time spent studying Spanish.

This does not conclude my prescription. Once college students have been exposed to the history and culture of one or more foreign countries or areas - I would recommend a liberal arts curriculum requirement - they should be given every encouragement to learn the languages of such countries. It is not unreasonable to assume that their interest will have been whetted to the point that many will want to go on and master the language involved. Language study will, for them, become a pleasure rather than an obligation reluctantly borne.

Professors of foreign languages will be almost hysterically opposed to this suggestion, fearing that their jobs will be imperiled and convinced that no one can possibly regard himself as educated who hasn't studied a foreign language. I am not addressing the professors.

I rest my case with college graduates who have no occupational stake in the matter and who can appraise their experience and use their personal judgment in light of the alternatives presented. As for myself, I am certain that if the long hours spent learning French and German for my doctorate had been spent studying Western European history and contemporary culture, my lasting knowledge of that area would have been immeasurably greater than the incidental information I acquired in the course of those studies. I think most college graduates will share that view.

At the least, those raising the warning flag about inadequate American language study ought to ponder this perspective rather than dismiss it out of hand.

Reo Christenson is a professor of political science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

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