July 11, 2008

Necessity Is The Mother Of Interlocution

Barack Obama had this to say about language skills in this country:

It is embarrassing — it is embarrassing when Europeans come over here. They all speak English. They speak French. They speak German. And then we go over to Europe, and all we can say is, 'merci beaucoup'.
Certainly, Obama is implying that we are somehow less intelligent, less educated than Europeans. Is that a fair assessment?

I think knowledge, or rather the importance of knowledge, is fairly relative. For example, I have a friend who works as a mechanic. He has no college degree. If you met him, you might think he was uneducated. However, he finds it unbelievable that some people are willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a car, hundreds a month to fill it with gas, and yet don't have even the slightest idea how to perform the most basic functions to keep it in shape. And he's right. You might be literally be a rocket scientist, but if your car breaks down and you don't know how to fix it, you're just as stranded as everyone else. So who's smarter in that case? The mind tends to be on the whole, eliminative. That is, we may take in a lot, but we tend to retain what we feel is necessary and let everything else slide. So why bother learning about a car when you can pay my friend to do it, right?

Now, I've taught business communication in a four-year university for several years. I can tell you for a fact that any student in any business program worth its salt in this country is learning the importance of communication across cultures, and I also know many graduate programs require students to be proficient in at least one other language.
In fact, Columbia University, Obama's alma mater has a language requirement as part of its core curriculum for undergraduates. Harvard University, where Obama got his JD requires its PhD students in government to be proficient in another language, and its PhD in English candidates to show proficiency in two additional languages. (I actually have to wonder how Obama got where he is without learning another language!) It's an increasingly smaller world/marketplace, and communicating across cultures is important. So this idea that Americans on the whole don't have any foreign language ability isn't exactly true. Those who need it will learn it.

Is there perhaps another reason why Europeans might be prone to learn additional languages?

Let's take a look at France:

France (including Corsica) is 211,209 square miles. It shares a border with Belgium (speaking Dutch/French/German), Luxembourg (Letzeburgish/German/French), Germany (German), Switzerland (German/French/Italian/Romansch), Italy (Italian), Andorra (Catalan/French), Monaco (French/English), and Spain (Castilian/Basque/Catalan/Galecian). Also, the UK is right across the English Channel (English/Welsh/Gaelic). For a comparison, you might look at Texas, which, at 261,000 square miles, is a bit bigger than France, but only borders four states. Now here's the important part:

By my count, if you include the UK, France is surrounded by no less than 13 distinct languages. Armed with that knowledge, answer the following two questions as honestly as you can:

1. If, in fact, the average Frenchie can speak two or more languages, and we neanderthal Americans, only one, which is more likely: that the American educational system is woefully inadequate by comparison and we should be embarrassed*, or that the the additional languages are a result of simple geographic circumstances creating both exposure to other languages and more of a necessity to learn and use them to aid in business, travel, etc.?

2. If the four states that border Texas (NM, OK, LA, AR) all spoke different languages, isn't it likely that most Texans would speak one or more of those languages? I think it's almost a certainty.

We simply don't have as much of a need as the Europeans do to learn other languages. And those who do, will.

Still don't agree? One last set of questions ought to prove my point. You'll notice that Obama specifically mentions Europeans. Are we getting waves of visitors from Mexico speaking German? Or hordes of visiting Canadians speaking Italian? Or do they primarily speak their own language, and that of their neighbor?

As I said, it's all relative.

* We may have plenty of other reasons to be embarrassed by our educational system, but that's for another post.

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