December 18, 2010


I have a confession to make: I am hopeless at foreign languages. I can just about hold a conversation in French but only of the most basic sort and I could at one point read some Latin and Greek but only again basically. I can read no Russian, no Chinese, no Arabic, no German- the worlds of Tolstoy, Confucius, Khaldun and Neitsche are only available to me through transalation and I have no means of judging the quality of what is translated. I find it interesting though to think about which languages people should learn. A recent article in the New Republic, damning the teaching of French in US universities, raised this issue: the author argued that the only languages Americans should learn at university were those that would be crucial to tommorrow's world- Arabic and Chinese. (I have no idea why Arabic was placed ahead of Hindi or Urdu, but then I may not know what I'm talking about!) His argument boiled down to the suggestion that languages should only be taught when they were languages of power: so Chinese for example is an imperial language and the language of a rising power so needs to be taught, Latin's moment passed 1500 years ago so should not be taught.

There are obvious reasons to endorse this argument. An education which means you can read Cicero in the original won't assist you directly in negotiating quotas at the WTO. A deep knowledge of Proust and his language is not going to help you build bridges. Chinese will be more useful as China grows in power and like it or not, most of us are going to be dancing to the tune of Beijing more than we will to the lilt of the Elysee Palace. There are good political reasons though for pausing: America will still need its European allies, they are still pretty big countries, whether you count populations or you count economies. Their importance may be declining but they are still significant and probably will be in 2050. So will some of their colonies which speak their languages- Brazilian Portugeese and Spanish through the whole of South America not to mention Algerian French and English in India. But lets leave that argument aside- again I profess only ignorance about the trends of the next century. I'm not sure this is key either: how many of us become diplomats, how many of us need to know foreign languages because of our jobs- my guess is that there are and will be very few people for whom this is true. The real reasons to learn a language are different. Are there reasons to learn a language which aren't based solely around power?

I think there are reasons to do so. Lets think for a moment about most education. It doesn't teach things that people directly need in their jobs. When I talk to maths graduates or economics graduates, they don't use what they did at university anymore than history graduates do. Unless you do a professional degree you are very unlikely to ever use what you do in your work unless you become an academic or a teacher. That doesn't mean the education is pointless: it merely means that its effects are not direct. So teaching French might not equip you to talk to your Chinese colleague about US trade policy, but it will give you other talents that will enable you to understand his argument. Learning one language helps one learn another language. Learning one literature helps one learn about the ways that human beings work and the way that logic works. Thinking no matter what it is about is good so long as it is done seriously and with effort. Learning Latin for example is good because it encourages that kind of thinking, possibly its more useful than a flaky degree in something more directly useful to a job or a future.

My opponent may take this argument but then reply, but doesn't teaching Chinese have the same effect and doesn't isn't it also more 'useful'. He is right. But lets be careful here. A good discipline in any language is a positive. French may be a door into learning other languages as well: it has more in common with English than Chinese does- so for the pupil first starting to learn languages it is a bridge into another world, a world in which the words we use have subtly different meanings. Chinese is harder in that its structure is so different, French from a pedagogic principle is therefore an easier bridge. But the whole idea that languages deserve to be learnt merely because of their importance now is also bizarre. Learning Chinese or French opens the door to vast civilisations underneath, to ways of thinking that are now long gone. You recover the world of Dumas and you learn something that no paper editorial can tell you about the radically different nature of the past. Chinese gives you the same insight because equally Confucius takes you to a different world. For me that's the real utility of a linguistic education, not that it provides you with something immediately cashable now but because it supplies you with an insight into a world you don't know about.

Who knows whether we will all need to speak Chinese or Hindi in the future, what we do know is that the basic human insight that the world is different to different people needs to be maintained. Whether it is French, Latin, Chinese or anything else languages can mantain and help assist us developing that insight: for me it is immaterial what language someone studies, so long as they study something.

And now I'm going to search for my dictionaries!