The Case for Foreign Language (and…Middle English?)

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) released a report stating that a mediocre or deficient public school system is a threat to national security and prosperity. While I do not agree with all of the reports recommendations (some of which demonstrate a misleading selection of research), I was delighted to see an emphasis on the importance of foreign languages alongside reading, math, and science. I was not so delighted to see, though was not surprised, that American public schools perform so poorly at preparing citizens in foreign languages. Some have criticized the report as too alarmist and a replay of the “Nation at Risk” report from the 1980s. Perhaps. It does appear to highlight the worst of the schools at the expense of great improvements. But if it starts a new conversation about the importance of education in our culture, I commend it.

Regarding foreign language instruction in the US, the report states:

Although the United States is a nation of immigrants, roughly eight in ten Americans speak only English and a decreasing number of schools are teaching foreign languages.

This as another blow to the uninformed proponents of the English-only movement. Clearly, the prevalence of English speakers in the US is not under threat. And the cited lack of quality foreign language instruction available at an early age has a negative impact on (the report says “crippled”) our nation’s “ability to communicate effectively with others in diplomatic, military, intelligence, and business contexts.”  The report goes on to state:

The Task Force does not necessarily believe that every U.S. student should be reading Chinese; indeed, too many are not reading English well enough. However, the group is troubled by the language deficit, and fears that it will prevent U.S. citizens from participating and competing meaningfully, whether in business or diplomatic situations. It will also have a negative impact on government agencies and corporations attempting to hire people knowledgeable about other countries or fluent in foreign languages.

This is a cause for alarm. The lack of access to early and quality foreign language programs affects nearly every aspect of national and economic security.

The latter quote hints at US English deficiencies as well.  In some ways, this trend in mediocrity could be said to extend far beyond language proficiency in the public school systems and into the greater reading culture itself.

Take, for example, publishing efforts that modernize the archaic spelling and language of Middle and Early Modern English. This trend to modernize, for example, the language of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare, assumes a diminished intelligence on the part of the reading public. The language of these authors is not very difficult. Ezra Pound once observed this fact stating, “Anyone who is too lazy to master the comparatively short glossary necessary to understand Chaucer deserves to be shut out from the reading of good books for ever.” While eternal banishment from good books may be a bit draconian, the idea does recognize the fact that what editors are modernizing (by assuming a lazy readership?) is not difficult material to begin with. Modernizing underestimates the abilities of the modern reader to interpret meaning and relevance of any given text. Moreover, it also prohibits a greater understanding of the English language itself.

And if this can be said of modernizing Chaucer, who wrote more than 600 years before our time, how much more could it be said of doing this for publications written only 200 years ago. For example, a recent re-publication of the Federalist Papers has them “reworked into ‘modern’ English” (hint: they were already written in Modern English) ostensibly to make them more accessible to readers (and are provided with the editor’s own illuminating interpretation, of course). This concept declares to us all that modern readers are just too stupid to understand without a little bit of pedantic hand-holding.

Editors underestimate the abilities of their readership, schools produce readers who are deficient, and this provides evidence that the editors’ underestimations were correct. That’s not good enough. And if the CFR’s assessment is correct, this assumption contributes to greater problems regarding security and economic prosperity. Isn’t that argument enough to change this trend? I have some hope that this report might start the needed conversation in the right direction. Not much hope, but some.

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin