Good grief. Various precincts of the right-wing blogosphere (plus Hannity) are bloviating about Barack Obama's recent remarks on language learning in the United States. For a good time, scroll through the comments and revel in all of the misspellings, grammatical errors and careless typos from those who argue that English is, by God, the only language they need to know.
But I see this as a serious matter. I teach a few German courses, so I was happy to hear Obama speak out in support of more language learning in schools. It's in my own self-interest, of course, and I have no quarrel with those who say that learning another language is unlikely to be of a great deal of practical use to most of those who make the effort to learn one.
I still argue that it's worth the effort. Here are a few reasons:
1. You don't really know your own mind until you have studied another language. From about age 3 on, we are so tied to language that it's hard to turn that inner voice off. Studying another language provides a constant reminder that the words we use to think about and describe the world are only a few choices among infinite possibilities. You never quite see the world the same way again.
2. Modern pedagogy tends to focus heavily on critical thinking, discussion, creativity and knowing how to look stuff up. Learning language reminds us of another aspect of education, once highly valued: memorization, rule learning and practice, practice, practice. I don't think those values should reclaim education, but I do think it does students some good to be exposed to them. Language learning requires a level of skill, talent and discipline all its own. I will never forget what one of my most diligent students said after a year in my class: "Learning German has been an humbling experience for me." Humility is not a bad thing to learn.
3. Learning a different grammar helps students understand English grammar better. I never got the subjunctive in English until I had to learn it in German. I always tell my students that once they learn the dative and accusative cases in German, they will never struggle again with distinguishing "who" from "whom" -- a distinction that floors students who have never studied another language.
4. You can't really grasp another culture without understanding some of the language. When I am explaining the difference between the formal "Sie" and the informal "du" in German, I sometimes tell students about a scene in "The Pianist." Germans address friends, family members and small children informally (and also talk to God that way), but they use formal address in most other circumstances. Throughout the movie, Germans insult Poles by using the informal form of address, even to elders, when Nazis are ordering Poles around. But in the one kind encounter that the main character has with a German officer, the officer addresses him formally. It's a sign of respect that immediately tells the German listener that the officer will be unlike any Nazi the pianist has encountered before. Of such slight and subtle language differences are whole worlds of understanding created.
5. Obama is absolutely right that language ought to be taught early. I don't understand exactly how this works in the brain, but the capacity to learn new languages declines rapidly as one grows up. Put that stuff in their heads when they are young, and it will stay there. And they will be better people for it.