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Our 'moat mentality' on foreign languages

WE SEEM to be in the habit of sounding national alarms, roughly every 20 years, regarding our lamentable disinterest in learning languages other than English -- and then failing to act on our resolutions to do better in this area.

In 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, which included various language-learning provisions, to meet ''the present national education emergency." That emergency was, of course, the Cold War. Then in 1979, the hostage crisis in Iran helped fuel interest in the work of a national commission that conducted a year-long effort to focus attention on Americans' need to know the languages of other nations.

Most recently, in February, the US Senate passed a resolution supporting the ''Year of Languages" effort, citing a 40-year history of US policy directives aimed at increasing the percentage of Americans who speak more than one language. Undoubtedly the observations of the 9/11 Commission on our continued deficiencies in multilingualism contributed to this measure.

It is not just the repeated reinvention of this wheel that makes me concerned about whether we will ever actually begin to use it. Until we see the larger reasons to learn other languages, we may just endlessly repeat a cycle of getting into a panic on this topic whenever we perceive a serious threat from abroad and then forgetting about it when the threat seems to recede.

In November 1979, I was part of a presidential commission that asked the federal government to commit $180 million in new funds to create a language program that might well have prepared us to meet today's crises. The money requested 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 the needs in undergraduate and advanced studies; to advance international research and teaching through academic and scholarly exchanges; to create an informed electorate through citizen education in international affairs.

Since our report coincided with the hostage crisis in Iran, it might not have been surprising if this effort to instill greater national interest in language learning had been more successful than others. But while every effort was made to have Congress and state legislatures get behind our recommendations, those ideas were ultimately relegated, as so many other laudable ones have been, to the dustbin of indifference.

And here we are today, going through the whole exercise again.

This on-again/off-again cycle is rooted in a ''moat mentality." 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. It is not.

Combine these factors with the ''melting pot" syndrome of assimilation at all costs still prevalent in some ways which long discouraged pride in our knowledge of different ethnicities, and it's not hard to account for our overall indifference to language acquisition.

We had a good opportunity in the late 1970s 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. In the end we did not really do any of that.

We have another good opportunity now, and I fervently hope we will take advantage of it. Perhaps in this ''Year of Languages," 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 who cannot 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. Language should not be an instrument of war but an instrument of peace.

John A. Rassias is professor and chairman of the Department of French and Italian at Dartmouth College.

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