“THE DANGERS OF FOREIGN LANGUAGE STUDY”

Foreign Language Association of Virginia

by

William B. Allen

Fairview Park Marriott
Falls Church, Virginia

November 6, 1998

I am really happy to be with you. For you, as teachers of foreign languages, do what in my life has been the source of the greatest joy.  But rather than to take you through my biography or even to talk with you about the pleasures of studying foreign languages—of course I will eventually address to you some reflections on developing public policy and implications for K-12 in the Commonwealth—I want to say a few words about the dangers of foreign language study.

As a way of putting this on the right footing at the outset, I am reminded of this theme because there are so many things that I have done, which are shaped by my own education, that I would not have conceived possible to do in the world. I feel somewhat sheepish coming among you, who are teachers of foreign languages and know very well how these things can be done. But so much of my own learning—apart from nothing more than a year here and a year there in one course or another—derives from my own study rather than systematic instruction.

Nevertheless, among the things that result from that study one shows up in conversations I sometimes have, as, for example, when my partner appeals to me, “please make me a gin and tonic,” and I reply without pause, “zap, you’re a gin and tonic!” Now, I submit that I would not do that if I had never learned any foreign languages. It is a dangerous thing to be prompted to untimely witticisms! We hear the colloquialisms of our English usage, but when they ape the forms of declined languages we slip bonds of familiarity to pursue dreams we recall from abroad. In the process we recommit to the rules of a periphrastic language, without having to be so pedantic as to instruct, “please make a gin and tonic for me.” This is most uncivil behavior, and therefore a danger that results from foreign language study.

Whether folk understand our witticisms or sarcasms at the moment we indulge them, they reveal something important about those of us who have acquired heightened sensitivity to differences in languages. While it may prepare us to talk to others, it more importantly encourages us to understand ourselves, to understand how we use our own language. We have all heard—and probably repeated time and again—that the student who learns a foreign language learns so much more about his native tongue and how to use it well. I, at least, have certainly given that response to the student who looked at me rather wistfully—if not resistfully—and wondered “why?”

Still, dangers lurk even here. We identify the easy temptations in the case of folk who imagine they can converse unperceived because the folk around them speak a different tongue. I expect that many of you have experienced that uneasy feeling while traveling abroad: are they talking about me? And, of course, they often are! On occasion I have surprised such naïve natives, belatedly revealing myself aware of their conversation despite my alien appearance. But new linguists are no less susceptible to this danger than native-born folk. Language can be a cover for rudeness.

Embarrassments abound here, even when no harm is meant. This occurred to me once, as I entertained a young couple early on in my first stay in France. I confess: my French was rather rough and ready. I arrived there having studied French for only three of the twelve-week summer course that had been interrupted by the death of my mother and, subsequently, for only one year immediately prior to my departure on the Fulbright appointment. On the other hand, I had already become deeply steeped in my subject, Montesquieu, whose French I read with ease. That is of course wonderfully elegant French, French from the eighteenth century, redolent of grand ambition and things we no longer think about (to use an expression he might have used). I learned so much of my vocabulary from Montesquieu. In fact, I did not hesitate in turning to my young friends in France and inquiring as I imagined he might have done, “est-ce que vous avez vous enjouis B San Francisco?” once they had told of their recent journey to America. I did not know that this trope was perhaps never used this way and far more significantly used only in a specialized and intimate colloquial sense in the twentieth century. But I did recognize the blushed scarlet that sat before me that autumn evening.

The dangers of foreign language study show up still more meaningfully in the case of Thomas Jefferson, a serious multilinguist though largely self-taught. You may well know that Jefferson was often at odds with President Washington. Indeed, Jefferson created the Democratic-Republican political party specifically to resist Washington’s agenda (or at least what Jefferson thought the agenda to be). This occurred as he sat in Washington’s cabinet, the Secretary of State. Jefferson had a criticism of the President that he did not dare to write or publish in English; so he published it in Italian, likening George Washington to a “Samson” in the field of battle and a “whore” in the nation’s councils. Unfortunately this screed eventually made its way across the Atlantic and out of the safe Italian into an English translation. You can readily imagine the difficulties this occasioned in the relationship between the two thereafter and for the balance of their careers. Foreign language tempts us to try to get away with things; that’s a danger of foreign language study.

We think, when we acquire a foreign language, that we have an additional instrument of communication. I’d like to challenge that assumption. We are tempted to think of foreign languages as so many collections of synonyms and cognates—warehouses or repositories of words and meanings that we can match up with words and meanings in our own native warehouses or repositories. I will challenge that definition of a foreign language, for it seems to me that a foreign language—or a language simply—is rather more a store of unduplicated meanings. The reason we care to study a foreign language is to gain access to those unduplicated meanings, meanings that we cannot approach through our own particular storehouses, those with which we were reared.

When we talk about multiculturalism and getting to know other people, I think it exceedingly important that we do so in a framework that encourages us to learn from them who they are rather than to learn who they are through our particular prisms. That is why I like to think of a language as a store of unduplicated meanings. This means in turn that we gain access to it only by entering it. We cannot do that by standing outside it.

Let me illustrate by the story of how I came to learn Italian, for it reflects exactly what I am saying. One of my areas of study has been the works of Harriet Beecher Stowe, with whom you are all familiar. As I began to look into the development of Uncle Tom’s Cabin—but also pursued her education, her background, and all of her other writings—I came to discover many things, including her extensive facility in languages. I realized, for example, that Uncle Tom’s Cabin grew out of her reading of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in the French. For the name of the ship on which Uncle Tom was shipped south, La Belle Rivière, was taken from Tocqueville’s account of his descent from north to south along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Upon a closer look at Tocqueville’s work one realizes that the entire plot of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is structured around the dramatic motion of Democracy in America. Stowe’s work takes on a much grander significance when placed in that context.

That study drove me deeper into Stowe’s work and her large list of writings until eventually I stumbled across a work in her name called Dio Dispone. It is written in Italian, and there is absolutely no record of any such thing in any manuscript or note or any of the materials that Stowe left behind. I was in a bind, for I did not know Italian. I needed to know if she wrote the novel, and I could not determine it from any external evidence. The only chance I would have was to read the novel and then to determine whether it conveyed the meanings I had already come to recognize as the work of her own intellect. If I could see that the arguments, the structure, the particular concerns that were familiar to me from her work in English (the same kinds of things one would seek in my work published in Italian), then there would be some reasonable prospect of attributing the novel to Stowe.

So, I had to learn Italian. I got out the primers, set to work for several months, and finally read Dio Dispone. I came to the conclusion that this was a very fine take-off on Harriet Beecher Stowe. Someone (perhaps someone who could not so openly publish a protestant tract in Italian) had read a great deal of Stowe and had a great deal of appreciation for her work. But it was not in fact Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work. I could not have arrived at that conclusion without learning the Italian (a translation would have misled me, even if one had existed). Now, here is my point: had I had it translated and read it only through the store of unduplicated meanings familiar to me, I could not have made so sure a judgment about whether those expressions were likely her own. I had to see them and understand them in the language in which they were written.

So, what is the most important danger in the study of foreign languages? Foreign languages conceal meanings. They do not conceal them absolutely; they only conceal them to the unlearned. They only conceal them to those who do not take the time to study. But they are perfectly concealed except that we are willing to venture into other realms of learning and study. That is why I suggest the study of foreign languages, its dangers notwithstanding. Moreover, it is the finest instrument human beings possess for keening the intellect. I do not know that it would have been at all possible in my development, to have pursued the areas important to me without being able to study the languages that are so intimately connected with the evolution of those historical and philosophical principles at the center of my own concerns.

I suspect that one would want to talk about foreign languages within the broader context of cultural and literary transmission. Of course, I particularly enjoy those aspects of it as well. But what interests me now is the fact that there is a direct connection between foreign language study and liberal education. What I have seen intermittently, as have so many more before me and as so many do even now—as indeed all of you—is to discover that while foreign language may be a discipline, it has a value far beyond its capacity to spawn a professional career. It is rather a disciplining of the mind than a professional discipline. It is a necessary tool, and not merely ancillary, in pursuing important questions about the human soul, about the prospects of human development.

As I look around I become somewhat frustrated, I confess, that we don’t have as intuitive a response to foreign languages as what used to characterize education. When Alexander Hamilton went off to King’s College from the isle of Nevis in the Caribbean and presented himself for matriculation at age 13 or 14, he was sat to read and translate passages in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. That was his entrance examination. I do not suggest that we must revert to that. We could leave off one of the three. But I am concerned to see a pattern emerging in many of our universities of, first, withdrawing required foreign language study and, secondly, trying to force it down into the k through twelve level by adopting admissions criteria for studying foreign languages that are minimal at best. Then we say to teachers at the k through twelve level, it is now up to you to make sure that all the language anybody needs has been provided for the future of our university students.

I think we need to revisit that issue; I think we need to revisit it even as we are revisiting standards of learning and seeking to strengthen k through twelve education. I do not believe that we should remove it from k through twelve. I think it belongs there. I wish that I had had so much more of it. When I began to study Greek I was a graduate student. And I assure you that at that advanced age I came to realize that I would have been far better off if I could have begun at age nine or ten. So, yes, I think we should have vigorous and ambitious foreign language study in grade school and in our high schools. Nevertheless, I like to remind people of what is not often mentioned when we speak of the facility with which the young can learn a foreign language. We often fail to tell parents particularly that the young forget it just as readily. They learn it quickly and they lose it quickly. The strength of foreign language study is carrying it into maturity. Its benefit comes to bear in our lives as we carry it on into maturity. Once we have gained mature command of a tongue, we never lose it. I am aware that you have had the same experience I have had. We think that if we haven’t used a language for a while, and it does not come immediately to the tongue, then perhaps we have lost it. But all we have to do is to step from a plane in a foreign land and hear the sounds around us. Then we realize, yes, we still have it. We may have to learn a new cliché or two, but we still have it. That does not occur to the young that way; they need more discipline; they need more study. And they need to bring consciousness of other languages into maturity before permanent acquisition.

We need to ask whether we are making permanent acquisition of foreign languages possible for our students. We need to ask it through high school. We need to ask it still in university. We need to ask whether our general education curricula are giving due and appropriate attention to foreign language study. When the Council of Higher Education releases its report on general education I am quite certain you will find underlined the section that concerns foreign languages. For, in all candor, that area harbors more confusion about standards and practices than any other area of the curriculum. It is true that people do not know whether they desire to require history or to make it one of a long list of things. People are not exactly sure what to ask for in the way of English, whether what we really need is literature or whether just a course in composition will do. They are not altogether certain what instruction in mathematics is required, whether one ought to strain one’s brain a time or two or whether “mathematics for the unfamiliar” isn’t an acceptable alternative. But there is no greater confusion anywhere than in respect to the standards, criteria, and expectations for foreign language study.

In the first place it is conceived that it does not really matter what language one studies. Now here let me tread on somewhat dangerous ground. I think it does matter. There are many wonderful languages all over the face earth, but not every language is equally a gateway to higher reflection. I’ll repeat that. Not every language is equally a gateway to higher reflection. Human beings do have a history. Those histories are related in these storehouses of unduplicated meaning. In those areas in which the histories that have evolved have allowed co-tangent and interpenetrating experiences among people, we have far greater opportunities to build our awareness of the nature of human life. We can identify the languages that bear those traditions in that manner. While there would be wonderful intellectual purpose, and even moral purpose, in studying the life and language of a remote tribe, perhaps even rescuing it and reducing it to writing and grammatical rules, the acquisition of that language will not bear as importantly on one’s intellectual development as the acquisition of Greek or Hebrew. That’s an accident of history, not a moral judgment. That’s just a reflection of who we are and where we have been. As we speak of foreign languages, we can never forget who we are and where we have been. We want to be able, through foreign languages, to gain access to stores of reflection. And that principle will tell us which languages most commend themselves to our students to study. It is not just a question of whether we live within a global society. I am all in favor of globalization. I have trotted about the globe with a great deal of joy, and I will do it some more. So, I favor globalization. But I do not believe that the argument from utility is an argument that is strong enough to carry us through what we need to do in order to make decisions about higher education and liberal education in particular.

In fact, I am reminded of the tale of the mouse who was escorting her youngster through a house toward the mouse hole. She heard behind her the sound of an approaching cat. They began to run, but the cat drew nearer. They were not going to escape. She stopped, turned in her tracks, and said, “bow wow!” As the cat scurried off, the mother mouse turned to her youngster and observed, “See, I told you that there is value in learning a second language.” Yes, there is utilitarian value in learning a second language. There is particularly utilitarian value in a society that now boasts so many second tongues (or, original tongues, I should say, in the presence of the second tongue of almost all of us, English!). It helps if we can understand one another when we speak from our particular stores of unduplicated meanings. But as a practical matter we are not all going to learn the several hundreds of languages now current in the United States. We are, however, all going to learn English. And when we have all learned additional languages that can respond to standards and criteria of educational progress, and that can be reasonably and meaningfully included in general education curricula, and that we ought to be able to expect from an educated people, then we can be confident of sustaining our progress.

In 1950 fewer than twenty per cent of the citizens in the Commonwealth had had any college experience. By 1980 that number was reaching beyond fifty per cent, and it is growing. We can now foresee the day when virtually every citizen of Virginia will have had college experience. Pause for a moment and imagine what that means. What will we be able to say when that day comes, when everyone we meet in the streets we will greet as a college person? Will we have any idea of what they bring with them in that college education? Or will our standards have wandered so far afield that it will no longer mean anything more than that they live on Compton Street?

That is why standards are important. Just as we are reaching the threshold of proving the democratic promise that we can educate a whole society, that we can infuse it with all of the thoughtful reflection that is necessary to make democracy work, at that moment, I submit, we are least of all permitted to weaken our standards. At that moment, we should be most insistent on being certain we get full value for the nominal accomplishment of giving everyone a college education. Therefore, I would like to invite you to think with the Council of Higher Education and with me about ways that we can revive honest concern with demanding study of foreign languages as part of the repertoire of an educated person.

I know that this is of course a difficulty. In my last assignment it soon became clear to me—after long conversations with faculty from the language departments and the College of Arts and Letters—that my desire to have everyone study a foreign language had some pretty awful consequences for teachers of foreign languages. They would have to teach countless sections of first and second year foreign languages for the rest of their lives. Without the requirement, if they taught only students who were really interested in majoring in a foreign language, they would get to teach advanced courses. They would teach literature, culture, geography, and philosophy—not grammar. Well, I am a bit quirky. I love grammar! I love teaching it, studying it, repeating it. So, take what I say with something of a grain of salt, if I don’t seem sympathetic. But I think beyond the ardors of teaching introductory level classes, I would offer a certain joy, a certain challenge that comes from sponsoring any student at any age in the discovery of new wonders. I acknowledge the joy of relaxing among the splendors of the things one has learned to care most about at the most advanced levels and to have fellow spirits around. They are practically colleagues—not students—at that level. But that is never so enjoyable as to sponsor the discovery of new wonders. That is what we do in those introductory courses. They may become drudgery, but then they have to be rethought. As we all move through a grand new effort to make assessment play a central role in our lives, let us give thought to benefit from assessment to make the work we do as exciting for us as we wish it to be for our students.

We at the Council will soon be releasing the latest report on Restructuring, and we will say of our colleges and universities that at some point it seems that we are in danger of seeing restructuring and the attendant assessment becoming a thin veneer, an administrative requirement carried out to satisfy the State Council but one that does not reach far enough into the faculties and student bodies to have a meaningful impact on academic programs. We are concerned about that. We rely upon you to prevent that happening. We rely upon you to assure that the process of continuous assessment, continuous quality review, is constantly reinvigorating and, above all, is an opportunity for you to establish some standards that our institutions will uphold.

Finally, let me say a few words about the essential role of the faculty as we move through the decentralization of program approval at the Council of Higher Education—and we will do that; we will have the legislation drafted by the end of the summer, with hopes of approval in the next biennial session of the General Assembly—we are going to decentralize program approval. We are going to reduce tremendously paperwork requirements, but we are going to do it in a context that raises very high expectations for assessment. Processes must be in place to assure that those who have most responsibility to conduct the education of our students will bear the greatest weight in determining the success of that education. I think that is important in no area so much as it is in the area of foreign language study. That is why I was eager to come to join you today, to have the chance to share with you my own convictions in this regard. I urge you to carry the banner yet another leg in this race that we all must run. I want, too, to congratulate you. For when I am among teachers of foreign languages, I know that I am among those who have had to insist for a long time on being respected as a part of the curriculum rather than being shunted off onto a siding. All too often that temptation has made our educational enterprise a doubtful one. I hope now that we are in an era when we are all going to be running on the main track.

Back to top