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Foreign Tongues

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What do former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Treasury Secretary and Harvard President Larry Summers have in common? The short answer: other than Ph.D.s and professorships, not very much. But it turns out that they both share an unfortunate skepticism about the importance in American education of studying foreign languages. In the case of Secretary Summers, his doubts appeared in a January 2012 New York Times article, "What You (Really) Need to Know," that was adapted from a speech he delivered at a Times-sponsored conference on Schools for Tomorrow. The Summers speech is actually a thoughtful speculation about what the future of undergraduate education might entail, and he makes important points about how processing and using information will be more important than imparting information. Collaboration skills will be both more extensive and, especially among employers, more valued. New technologies will also change the way knowledge is delivered and data are analyzed. But when he speculates about the future importance of learning a foreign language, Secretary Summers gets things wrong. He correctly notes that our more open world will require that "the educational experience breed cosmopolitanism," which he describes as students having international experiences and social science classes that utilize examples taken from around the world. In the case of learning a language, he states that English is rapidly becoming the world's "global language," and the growth of machine translation and "the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world" will render it unlikely that "the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile." Larry Summers is also one of this country's foremost economists, so it makes sense that he would approach this topic using a cost-benefit analysis. His calculus is just somewhat limited -- and mistaken. But let's turn next to Speaker Gingrich. In the same month that Secretary Summers wrote his article, Speaker Gingrich was busy bashing former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney for, among other things, speaking French. The Gingrich presidential campaign launched a televised attack ad against Governor Romney that likened him to another Massachusetts politician who also ran for president and spoke French, U.S. Senator John Kerry. Governor Romney spent his Mormon mission as a student in France, which is where he learned the language. The fact that Governor Romney speaks another language is a good thing -- something to be applauded, not derided. The Gingrich attack ad was a cheap shot and, most likely, backfired among thoughtful Americans. Moreover, it came across as consistent with the anti-intellectualism that has occasionally arisen throughout American history but has almost never been associated with our more successful leaders who challenge us to improve ourselves and not to settle for less. Coming from the professoriate, Speaker Gingrich should know better. During my postsecondary education experience, most professors encouraged young Americans to learn more, not less. Ridiculing someone for having taken the time to master another language is not the characteristic of a leader, let alone a future president. But there are other important aspects of learning a foreign language that both men overlook. Here are three examples:
  • Learning a foreign language is not about processing data but actually entails learning something of substance. Our young people will also learn the experience of devoting time to mastering a capability that will pay dividends in other areas of their lives.
  • One of these dividends is the cultivation of an "investment mentality." There is no pill you can take on Monday that will make you fluent in Farsi by Tuesday. Such mastery comes from a distinctive habit of mind that focuses on the long-term discipline of learning. In our increasingly short-term-focused society, we need more long-term activities, not fewer!
  • We speak of wanting more Americans to become lifelong learners with open and curious minds. Exposure to another country -- its history, culture, and language -- offers such opportunities. I got hooked on French when I was seven years old, and it has changed my life in numerous ways, personally and professionally.
America needs a far more geoliterate population in the 21st century. As former President George W. Bush once noted, learning a foreign language is not just an education priority; it also relates to our economic security, our national security, and the effectiveness of our public diplomacy. President Bush also observed that when you take the time to learn someone's language, you are sending messages that you also care about that person -- her country, her heritage, her future. And these are messages that Americans need to be sending in an increasingly globalized world. In 2006, the Committee for Economic Development published a well-regarded policy statement entitled "Education for Global Leadership: The Importance of International Studies and Foreign Language Education for U.S. Economic and National Security." I'll be sending the Secretary and the Speaker complimentary hard copies which I know they will appreciate because in their own ways, they care about our country and its future.

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Charles Kolb is the President of the Committee for Economic Development in Washington, D.C. He served in the first Bush White House from 1990-1992 as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy and in the Department of Education as Deputy Undersecretary for Planning, Budget and Evaluation (1988-1990). In August, he will become President of the New York-based French-American Foundation. The views in this article are solely the author's.