We Have a Listening Problem If We Aren’t Learning Foreign Languages

February 15, 2012

By Victor C. Johnson

I wanted to join the conversation about Larry Summers’s remarkable statement in a recent New York Times opinion piece about why we don’t need to learn foreign languages anymore.

Mr. Summers advances two reasons why, 25 years from now, we won’t need to know how to speak other people’s languages. First, we will all have an app for that. Well, maybe. I read in the New York Times a few days ago that they have an app now for flirting in bars, so I guess anything is possible. May he and I both live long enough to know.

But as I am a bit skeptical of that one, I focus more on the other reason:  the not-exactly-original notion that English is now the universal language, so why make the effort to learn other people’s languages? Here’s why.

The idea that we will not need to know other languages in 25 years because everyone will speak English has in fact already been around for about that long. It has not served us well.

America has a listening problem. We continually fail to understand—or even see it as important to understand—what others think—and are telling us—about us, about themselves, about their situation, and about our frequently-proffered prescriptions for what they should do about it. The list of foreign policy fiascoes that this problem has caused us is a long one, and it is growing. Mr. Summers’s profession is far from the only culprit, but it is one of them. American economists’ advice about how other countries should run their economies fills many of those volumes in the Library of Congress that Mr. Summers mentions elsewhere in his article. At any given time, much of the U.S. foreign policy agenda consists of dealing with what we refer to as the unintended consequences of past agendas. They may be unintended, but in many, if not most cases, they were not unanticipated. Most policy failures were not only predictable, but predicted. We just didn’t listen. We didn’t think that understanding the people and the places that were the arena for these policies was an important thing to do. We didn’t even really know how to do that—in many cases because we only listened to the people who knew how to talk to us.

Language is a vehicle—a tool—for listening, for communicating, for understanding, for being able to relate to people on their terms. People who understand the need for such communicating tend to be people who also understand that it helps to know languages to do it. Conversely, people who invest in foreign language-learning tend to be people who understand that what these languages are for is to be able to communicate with and understand other people and cultures. It is an essential habit—not just for all the very good and valid reasons that have been cited earlier in this conversation, but also because it is quite literally essential for our country’s future in a multi-polar world characterized by what Fareed Zakaria has characterized as “the rise of the rest.” NAFSA has long argued that the United States cannot be secure and successful in—much less purport to lead—a world that it does not understand. That statement is truer every day. Language is a tool for understanding. With all respect to wireless technology and social media tools, no app can replace it.

America has a listening problem fundamentally because it has—I’m sorry to put it this way, but it’s true—an arrogance problem. Think of how it sounds to the rest of the world when we say:  We don’t have to invest in learning your language; it's your responsibility to invest in learning ours. Yet if we knew how to listen to the world, we would know that much of it sees that as typical of our approach to them. This causes huge damage to our country, and it is unnecessary. Making the effort to communicate with other people in their languages, even as they make the effort to learn ours, shows respect for them. Respect gets you a long way. In the ‘60s, when I was coming of age, we understood this. Foreign language study was a lot more common than it is today, high schools and universities had foreign language requirements, and the government was wise enough to promote foreign language study for reasons of national interest. The notion that we don’t need to do this anymore does not constitute progress, it constitutes forgetting.

NAFSA believes that everyone who graduates from college in this country should be able to communicate in a foreign language. The Obama administration is now promoting a “race to the top” in higher education; this should be one of its key indicators. If, 25 years from now, this objective becomes reality, we will have much better educated citizens, and we will be a much stronger, more successful country.