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The legacy of our moat mentality

John Rassias on the importance of language for  international understanding

On February 17, 2005, twelve U.S. senators successfully brought a resolution to the floor designating 2005 as the "Year of Foreign Language Study," (S. Res. 28). Citing a 40-year history of  U.S. policy directives aimed at increasing the percentage of Americans who speak more than one language, the resolution concludes, "It is the sense of the Senate that foreign language study makes important contributions to cognitive  development, our national economy and our national security..."

John Rassias
John Rassias (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Those of us who know the crucial role multilingual abilities play in international  understanding are pleased that Congress has sounded the alarm one more time. But we have seen similar efforts in the past. They tend to recur  in 20-year cycles and in response to  international crises. Beginning in 1958 with the  passage of the National Defense Education Act it  was the Cold War. In 1978, it was the hostage crisis in Iran. Now, we are responding to the September 11 terrorist attacks and the war in  Iraq.

It was back in 1978 that Representative Paul  Simon (D-Ill.) discovered that the U. S. was in  violation of the 1975 Helsinki Accords that  commit signatory states "to encourage the study  of languages and civilizations as an important  means of expanding communication among peoples."

Simon presented the case to President Jimmy  Carter who established a Commission to  investigate the status of Foreign Languages and  International Studies in the U. S. I was  privileged to serve on this blue ribbon  commission along with 24 other individuals,  including Simon; Leon Panetta, then a U.S.  Representative; Fred Hechinger, President of The  New York Times Foundation; Edwin O. Reischauer,  Ambassador to Japan and Father Timothy Healy,  President of Georgetown University, among others.  Chaired by James Perkins, who was the Chair of  the International Council of Educational  Development, the Commission issued a report,  Strength Through Wisdom: A Critique of U.S.  Capability, in November 1979. Its recommendations  were urgently needed then and - given the  mounting crises we face now - are needed even  more today. According to the report, our  incompetence in foreign languages was "nothing  short of scandalous and ... becoming worse." Our  discoveries were appalling.

We found that a lack of language and culture  fluency in our elementary and secondary schools  resulted in broad ignorance. Forty percent of  12th graders could not locate Egypt on a map and  some 20 percent could not situate France or  China. Only 15 percent of American high school  students studied a foreign language and even that  number was declining. Just eight percent of  American colleges and universities required a  foreign language for admission and only five  percent of prospective teachers at the time of  our report had taken a course in international  studies. Boredom and unimaginative teaching were  cited as the chief factors responsible for the  decline.

In 1978, fewer than one percent of the 11 million  undergraduate and graduate students at our  nation's colleges and universities were studying  languages that were spoken by 80 percent of the  world's peoples. When the hostage crisis took  place in Iran, only six out of 60 foreign service  officers could speak Farsi.

There are historic reasons for our poor  performance in language acquisition. We have been  raised to believe that proficiency in other  languages is unnecessary, that others will speak  to us in our language. We live under the  erroneous assumption that English is spoken  throughout the world. Combine these with the  "melting pot" syndrome - still prevalent in 1978  - of assimilation at all costs, which discouraged  pride in or knowledge of different ethnicities, and it's not hard to account for the problems we  found.

Money was not a factor, since it would have cost  the federal government a mere $180 million in new  funds to create a program then that could have  prepared us to meet the problems of today. Those  funds would have enabled us to improve foreign  language competency and cultural awareness at all  levels, to educate our children to meet the 21st  century, to address needs in undergraduate and  advanced studies, to advance international  research and teaching through academic and  scholarly exchanges and to create an informed  electorate through citizen education in  international affairs. It was the time to  confront major disasters in three crucial areas:  education, to eliminate the moat mentality that  separates us from the rest of the world;  commerce, to be able to conduct business in the  language of our clients; and diplomacy, to avoid  dangerous misunderstandings through ignorance of  language and culture.

So it was with a sense of déjà vu that I read the  recent Report of the 9/11 Commission. In 1978, we suggested that "...racial and ethnic  minorities...[could be] brought into the  mainstream of educational and employment  opportunities in the areas of foreign language  and international studies, where they will make  rapid, new and valuable contributions to America's capacity to deal persuasively and  effectively with the world outside its borders."  Then, as now, the CIA was in the embarrassing  position of being unable to transcribe hours of  accumulated taped information in various Arabic dialects.

While this may be "The Year of Foreign Language Study," we do not need to establish another Commission. I doubt its findings would be any  more heartening. Perhaps this year, though, we can strive to do more than be motivated by  terrorism and fear. Perhaps we can invigorate  language learning for reasons of humanity. We need only wake up and join the human race by  learning its languages and absorbing its  cultures, hear the alarm bells, smell death where  there should be life, listen to the agonizing  screams of children without a voice, taste the  food that millions do not have and touch those whocannot reach out to us.

With these principles as our priorities, it is  not at all quixotic to speculate that we may be  able to tackle present problems and avoid future  ones without resorting to shock and awe tactics.

William R. Kenan, Jr.  Professor and Chair of the Department of French  and Italian

Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 12/17/08