I confess that I tire quickly of earnest admonitions that more Americans need to learn foreign languages. The Washington Times writes that the Senate has declared 2005 to be “The Year of Languages in the United States.” Firstly, how about declaring “The Year of Demanding that Immigrants Learn English.” But besides that, there are two reasons to promote the study of foreign languages, and only one, the less significant one is ever mentioned. Yes, it’s true that foreign-language education is aimed at “making Americans better citizens in the global market, as well as working toward increasing their knowledge and understanding of other cultures,” blah, blah, blah. A less soft-headed version of this rationale is that the FBI needs more Urdu speakers. But the vast majority of American students will never be capable of more than a passing familiarity with the language they study because it’s not necessary to their lives; we live in a continental nation that already uses the global lingua franca.
No, the main reason to promote the study of foreign languages is to make sure kids speak and write English better. I took four years of French in high schools, plus three years of Russian in college, and I’d be lucky now to understand directions to the bathroom in either. But by comparing them to my own language, I learned a lot about how language works and came to master English more completely. It’s like Steve Martin says, “”The French have a different word for everything!”