Learning foreign languages? Why bother?

Published 7:27 am Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Nearly 30 years ago, I spent a year living in Germany, studying die Deutsch Sprache and Linguistics at the University in Erlangen.

I still cringe when I remember how overconfident I was as I began that year. I knew how to speak German, I thought, and had already been to Germany several times visiting relatives. I had gotten A’s in my grammar and conversation classes at the University of Arizona; I had taken so many, in fact, that it almost qualified me for a second major in German. What could possibly get in the way of success? Not much, apparently. Just some simple questions — auf Deutsch, of course — asked by ein Zollbeamter (a customs official). Luckily for me, he could speak fluent English.

I’m teaching German at my college this semester, because we needed someone and I was willing. It’s been an adventure learning how to teach a language I thought I knew so well; however, I learned my lesson about arrogance long ago, and I’m having fun. I think the few students who participate are having fun, too. It’s the “few students” that’s the only real downer. Why is that so many young people come to college with a year of Spanish or no foreign language study at all but believe they can get a well-rounded education without learning how to communicate in anything other than English.

Despite my many problems with his decisions and his leadership, I’m still impressed that former President Bush spoke Spanish. It wasn’t great Spanish, but it was good enough. I’m equally impressed that the principal and the police liaison at our local high school are fluent in Spanish. Now what about the rest of our leaders in this community and beyond? How many languages besides English can our mayor, President Obama or Gov. Tim Pawlenty speak? How many languages besides English can our secretaries of state, defense and commerce speak, read or write? Are Chinese or Arabic among them? It’s a big world out there, and even though English is an important international language, a lot of people can get by just fine without learning it.

Living and traveling abroad I discovered we Americans don’t have a particularly impressive reputation when it comes to learning other people’s languages. Why is this? Why are we so reluctant to learn languages other than English? Why is it that a person can be considered well-educated in our country even if they can’t speak another language? Why is bilingualism seen by so many to be a reason for suspicion or a cause of prejudice? We sure look pretty self-centered, whatever the reason. English is a fine language, but it is only one among many on this planet. How can we successfully carry our “democracy and free-market philosophy” to the world if we have to wait while they learn how to speak English?

I know that many good schools in our country already offer instruction in foreign languages (perhaps not surprisingly, the most popular is Spanish). But we Americans usually wait until high school (or college) to begin that kind of learning, while in most other countries kids start learning a foreign language in elementary school. In American schools, we wait until the brain has turned off the ability to easily learn language and then we start drilling our kids and young adults in a new grammar and vocabulary. It’s no wonder so many of them think it is such a drag.

Opportunities to study language in school — instead of through private lessons or expensive software like Rosetta Stone — will not appear unless something else changes first. Learning a new language needs more than just a teacher, a classroom and students. Successful foreign language programs in our elementary, middle and high schools need citizens who value the languages and cultures that lie beyond our borders. We need to speak up and demand that those political leaders who keep attaching more and more strings to school funding also make it possible for schools to offer these kinds of programs. And we need to support the teachers and schools in our communities that do spend valuable school hours learning that qo’mey poSmoH Hol*.

* Klingon: Language opens worlds.

Albert Lea resident David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea. His column appears every other Tuesday.