Foreign Language Learning: Critical Skills for a Fast-Moving World

February 09, 2012

By David Dinneen

I have been retired for over ten years, and I must admit that I have taken full advantage of not being on the front lines writing and speaking in defense of foreign language learning. When I feel moved to speak up on the subject, I do so from the admittedly comfortable position of not having to concern myself with preserving my livelihood. What does need preserving, however, is something absolutely critical to all of us: the ability of our citizens to understand the world, and to be effective, in the cross-cultural and global contexts where daily life increasingly plays out. To this end, foreign language learning is absolutely critical.

In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Lawrence Summers wrote that the advent of sophisticated translation technology may very well soon make the study of foreign languages an unnecessary activity in U.S. higher education. As a professor of French and of Linguistics, who earned his doctorate in Linguistics at Harvard while a member of the Machine Translation project at M.I.T., I must strongly disagree.

When students learn a foreign language, they are not only learning how to communicate in that particular tongue. As others have pointed out, and as mounting scientific evidence indicates, language learning helps significantly in making the brain more agile, more ready to learn other languages, and –equally important – to appreciate and understand related disciplines such as mathematics (especially symbolic logic) and music theory. I was contacted recently by a former student from my intensive French class at the University of Kansas who wanted to discuss, over lunch, some aspects of the business translation of Chinese. As we talked, I learned that he had moved on to other languages beyond French, including Chinese, and—more to the point here—had developed an approach to the problems that he was confronting that he believed owed much to his experiences in learning French.

He was developing software to aid businesses that wanted to enter markets in China that would help them not only with the language, but also with understanding the cultural differences. This application of language learning may seem surprising, but as I often emphasized in my teaching (and especially in training graduate teaching assistants), what we are doing when we teach language is giving students a set of materials and tools, but it is the students who will ultimately internalize the language in their own ways, making use of both its communicative aspects, and its structural and connective elements, in ways that we cannot entirely predict but that have critical and direct applications in other creative and innovative domains. In sum, the student not only learned to speak French, he also developed an understanding of the culture and recognized (perhaps later in life) the importance of both of those skills in any global interaction.

In his piece, Mr. Summers questions the need for memorization in today’s world. He states that extensive databases and highly sophisticated search tools obviate  the need for humans to store large amounts of information in their brains—an obvious necessity when one learns a language (we do need to develop a vocabulary, not necessarily by using flash cards, but the fact is they help early in the game). Undoubtedly, “Google it” is a proper suggestion for a friend or student who needs some piece of information, and it often fulfills a specific need at a specific time. Still, as I know from the year I spent with the U.S. Army in Vietnam translating and interpreting for military advisers, you cannot tell your superior officer to wait a moment while you check your dictionary. Yes, the iPhone or iPad is fast, but even that momentary break in the interchange would not be acceptable in a military environment, nor I'm sure in an exchange between two business persons, nor two diplomats.

Finally, consider the example of Peter Selleck, a former Army officer who is now president of Michelin North America. Describing the value of language learning in a recent interview, he said he decided that picking up a third language was essential to his ability to communicate effectively. Speaking the language of the people in the countries where you operate, he said, is a key way to “properly demonstrate respect not only to your employees but also to your customers.” In the fast-moving and complicated world of human dialogue, nothing replaces or can replace competency in the language of your interlocutor.

David Dinneen is a retired French and Linguistics professor from the University of Kansas.