Foreign Languages

Over a year ago I wrote a blog about “useless subjects” that are no longer taught in our colleges and high schools. Following the attack on fundamentals in education during the turbulent 60s, the shift toward practical subjects that could guarantee students jobs began. And it has persisted to this day, even though the jobs just aren’t there when the students graduate from college, and, strictly speaking, colleges have lost their sense of purpose altogether and have no idea whatever how to “sell” their programs to their “customers.” The notion that there are certain subjects that every educated person should know has been lost in the kerfuffle, and probably would be lost on most high school students today. But it deserves a moment’s reflection: what has been given up?

Back in the day (as we say) when I went to high school, two years of foreign language, usually Latin, were required for graduation. Even the tiny high school I attended in Bethel, Connecticut required two years of Latin for graduation. And we diagrammed sentences in English classes, we had to memorize poetry, and we had few, if any elective courses. The idea was that the teachers knew best what their students should learn. Further, all colleges worth their salt required two years of a foreign language for entrance — along with subjects like civics and American history, math and lab science. And in order to graduate from college, I was required to take four years of foreign language in which we studies grammar and syntax, translated from the foreign language (Greek, French, and German) into English, and came to know our own language a bit better. But after the assault on education in the 60s when we began to let the kids decide what they would like to study and basic requirements were replaced by “cake” courses, or those that were largely geared for guaranteed employment after graduation; the notion that certain courses were essential passed by the boards.

If foreign languages are taught any more in college or high school it is usually in the form of “conversational” language– designed to allow the student to get by in a foreign land, find the rest room or the nearest hotel, perhaps. Despite the studies that show that other animals communicate with one another, there is no evidence that any of these animals have a “language” in a formal sense of that term. The notion that one studies a foreign language in order to come to know his or her own language better has been lost in the clouds of rhetoric that have surrounded education in recent years. If we consider that language is perhaps the one thing that separates humans from the other animals  the loss of close studies of English and Latin, at least, may have cost us a great deal.

Much has been said about the dumbing down of the curriculum at the high school, college, and even the post-graduate levels — where remedial courses are now the norm and language requirements have gone by the boards. And it has been said by me in previous posts and by a number of very bright and concerned writers in recent years. But it is a message that falls on deaf ears, in many cases ears of those who have never studied their language very closely and who have no idea what they are missing. How could they? As the downward spiral continues, and we proceed along the path of vocational training and abandon altogether the ideals of educating the young, we will have fewer and fewer voices expressing concern about the things that really matter in bringing up the young and helping them take possession of their own minds. And just as Shakespeare’s English has become a foreign language for the typical college graduate these days, the ability to read and express one’s ideas coherently will be diminished to the point that we are all lost in a sea of mindless babble and we will have become less than human. Or has that horse already left the barn?

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15 thoughts on “Foreign Languages

  1. I have a feeling I know why, but I fear it would come across as extremely racist whilst not meaning to be.

    My nephew was learning Latin in his Grammar School which surprised us that even today some places take language over just getting by.

  2. That horse you refer to is long gone. One only has to read the papers and web sites to see how much we depend upon SpellCheck to correct our grammar and proper usage. “Weather” for “Whether” “Lead” for “Led” “Loose and Lose,” are some of the typical failures I see every day. No one edits, no one checks their work any longer. Just throw it out there, the plebes should be grateful to even share one’s thoughts.

    • not noone!! I edit my writing 🙂 but, yes, not many people will re-read what they’ve written to ensure that it makes sense and there are no errors. It’s one of my pet peeves being a language major and, well, a bit of a perfectionist. It even shows up on signs. I’ll never forget a sign at a Sears store that read “Employee’s only”…..I wanted to ask someone “Employee’s only WHAT?” oy yoy yoy….

      Also (in response to the post) – I don’t recall foreign language being a requirement to enter college but I may not have noticed since I’ve been studying Spanish for what seems my entire life (starting in 8th grade? and continues to this day…).

  3. Your comment about learning our own language better is the best reason we should insist on learning other languages. I had the opportunity to learn Spanish as an adult, and that, more than my years in school made me reflect on English as a school subject, not as a language I spoke with ease. I once taught students in Ukraine English, and they had a much better sense of our own grammar than anyone I’ve taught here at home. Every student in Ukraine learns at least one other language. I ask myself often exactly what skills most students in the states come away with after investing an enormous amount of time in education. Sadly, too often, the investment is a poor one.

    • Susan, many thanks for the good comments! I also wonder “what skills most students in the states come away from after investing an enormous amount of time in education.” I suspect they are job skills, for the most part. And our education system is, for the most part, a giant “rip-off.” I have blogged about this a number of times! Thanks again for the comment.

  4. Back in the dark ages when I went to school, a second language was a requirement at most colleges. Even today, admission to the FBI Academy requires fluency in a second language. An acquaintance just entered and I was surprised by the requirement.

    Most good writers, such as Marsha, above, have been drilled over and over about editing and re-editing. I learned to start at the end, and go backward through a piece, and errors would jump out at me. Which they do. But still, some will always get through. But it’s the obvious ones that drive me nuts, where carelessness abounds. One need only look at the banners sliding below TV news to see obvious errors every day.

    And my apologies to Tobyo, I did not mean to paint such a broad brush.

  5. Hugh, good post. From a demographic and employment perspective, bi-lingual jobs where you can communicate in the primary language of the prospective buyer or user, are worth more pay-wise than uni-lingual jobs. This will become even more apparent in the next two decades. Two examples. 1) Bank of America has the option to use a Skyped in bi-lingual teller at the ATM to do unusual transactions or answer questions. 2) Many call centers and support centers are in Costa Rica. They have a 97% literacy rate and a very high percentage of a bi-lingual and many tri-lingual people. I have heard once you learn another language, it is easier to pick up a third one. Thanks, bro. BTG

  6. I thought of you this afternoon, Professor Hugh. Per Rev. Russell Wisehart who wrote into Life in these United States in Readers Digest’s current issue – “Our professor had run through some of philosophy’s heaviest hitters: Xenophanes, Anaxagoras, Descartes, Schleiermacher and Nietzsche. He had just started in on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, when a voice begged, ‘Did anyone named Smith ever write anything?'” Of course, you probably would say “yes, Adam, now let’s move on.” All the best, BTG

  7. I teach medical students – they are amazed when shown that names for parts of the body have meanings in Latin (and Greek) that tell you what they look like e.g. the lunate bone in the wrist looks like the moon. We had a complaint from the 3rd year that they had been given six hours of lectures on a subject that would not be examined, so that was six hours wasted! I despair…. Tony

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