The university language-teaching community has devoted much effort in the past 10 years to promoting language study to its potential students – and more importantly to anyone with an interest in our future capacity as a nation to deal competently with other cultures. As part of this, I think we have spent too much time talking up the individual economic benefits.
It is time to take another tack. If we start from the premise that is good for any society if its citizens have as rounded an education as possible, then we should perhaps reflect how knowledge of a foreign language fits in with what we expect from an educated person.
This isn’t a subject that has much traction these days, as the notion that people once learned foreign languages simply because it was expected, even normal to do so, now seems to belong to a world as remote from most people’s experience as public school Latin or the eleven-plus entrance exam to grammar school.
I came across the following definition of what a student _should_ learn by the American philosopher John Searle.* It was written as part of a review of polemics bemoaning the state of American universities in 1990 and is worth requoting:
The student should have enough knowledge of his or her cultural tradition to know how it got to be the way it is. This involves both political and social history, on the one hand, as well as the mastery of some of the great philosophical and literary texts of the culture on the other. It involves reading not only texts that are of great value, like those of Plato, but many less valuable that have been influential, such as the works of Marx. […] However, you do not understand your own tradition if you do not see it in relation to others. Works from other cultural traditions need to be studied as well.
You need to know enough of the natural sciences so that you are not a stranger in the world.
You need to know at least one foreign language well enough so that you can read the best literature that that language has produced in the original, and so you carry on a reasonable conversation and have dreams in that language. There are several reasons why this is crucial, but the most important is perhaps this: you can never understand one language until you understand at least two.
You need to know enough philosophy so that the methods of logical analysis are available to you to be used as a tool. One of the most depressing things about educated people today is that so few of them, even among professional intellectuals, are able to follow the steps of a simple logical argument.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you need to acquire the skills of writing and speaking that make for candor, rigor, and clarity. You cannot think clearly if you cannot speak and write clearly.
As a linguist, I take heart in Searle’s assertion that learning another language is part of understanding your own. And that the level to aspire to is one which enables you to do three things – to read the best literature in its original words, to hold a reasonable conversation, but also to dream… Not just to ensure higher lifetime earnings then?