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

English-only? There is a Cure!

Various versions of the English-only movement have been in existence in the US since the early 1800s. The idea that having one official language establishes some sort of political or cultural unity has a pernicious hold on the minds of many Americans. I was not surprised, therefore, to see the specter of English-only arise again in the political sphere.

In addressing potential state-hood for Puerto Rico, (a primarily Spanish speaking US territory) Former US Senator Rick Santorum was recently quoted as saying:

Like any other state, there has to be compliance with this and any other federal law… And that is that English has to be the principal language. There are other states with more than one language such as Hawaii but to be a state of the United States, English has to be the principal language. (Reuters. March 14, 2012)

Not only does this display a mind-numbingly misinformed understanding of federal law regarding the supposed requirement that English be the primary language, but it is also certain to not win over any friends in a primarily Spanish speaking community. While there are some states that have passed laws making English the official language, not all of them have done so nor, contrary to what might be asserted otherwise, does federal law require it.

For reasons that should be apparent to anyone with half of a functioning neuron, organizations such as the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) and Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (English-only position paper) are opposed to English-only efforts. The LSA stated their opposition in a 1986-7 resolution that declares, among other things,

The English language in America is not threatened. All evidence suggests that recent immigrants are overwhelmingly aware of the social and economic advantages of becoming proficient in English, and require no additional compulsion to learn the language.

American unity has never rested primarily on unity of language, but rather on common political and social ideals.

Like I said, anyone with half of a functioning neur-… never mind. You’d think that, in a 21st century America, we’d not even have to state something so obvious. Somehow facts just shouldn’t get in the way of political expediency, I guess.

Though I often work with English language learners, I don’t often encounter the sorts who openly advertise their allegiance to the English-only movement. This has occurred just once. I tried to talk about the myths that the concept of English-only promotes but wasn’t getting anywhere.

During the conversation I was reminded of a quote by Noam Chomsky describing the object of linguistic theory:

Linguistic theory is concerned with an ideal speaker-listener, in a completely homogeneous speech-community, who knows its language perfectly and is unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant conditions such as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interests, and errors (random or characteristic) in applying his knowledge of the language in actual performance.

In short, it is something that does not exist. Speech communities are not homogeneous and no speakers are perfect in their knowledge of their language. We are all subject to memory and recall limitations, distractions, attention shifts and errors. We are all imperfect speakers.

Perhaps I failed to articulate my position, or perhaps my fellow commuter was too stubborn to see my wisdom, but when he also affirmed a belief that people with accents shouldn’t teach English (of course, we all have accents) I resorted to a tactic based on the idea that we are all imperfect speakers. I made him doubt his own language proficiency.

“Before you say that, shouldn’t you speak English better than you do?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you’ve already made numerous errors in this conversation.”

The conversation ended shortly thereafter.

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin