Paul Cohen to Lawrence Summers: 不对 [older version]

In “The Rise and Fall of the American Linguistic Empire” in the current issue of Dissent, Paul Cohen attacks the advice of Lawrence Summers to trash the study of foreign languages.

There is a revised version of this entry.

Historian Paul Cohen has entered the eternal debate about the value of multilingualism with a warning to those who haven’t yet learned to distrust Lawrence Summers. Summers opined in January 2012 that the elimination of foreign languages should be part of a curricular overhaul of higher education in the English-speaking world, in view of the increasingly English-speaking world of which it is a part. Cohen, in an article titled “The Rise and Fall of the American Linguistic Empire” in the fall 2012 issue of Dissent, says that Summers is just plain wrong.

Cohen’s reasons include these:

  • Languages are not purely interchangeable codes capable of expressing identical meanings.
  • Literatures and discourses that are accessible only in languages other than English have worth.
  • Americans are even uglier than usual when they insist that non-Americans pay the entire linguistic price for communication with them.
  • The U.S. has global interests (ranging from military to humanitarian) and can pursue them more successfully when its people in the field can undersand and be understood by those they deal with.
  • English has little to cement its global dominance after its carriers lose their great-power status, partly because the same Summersist reformers who attack foreign languages also impede the cultivation of cultural creativity in English itself.
  • History has not ended, and signs of a future disintegration of English as the world’s lingua franca, even within the U.S. itself, are already visible.
  • Given that linguistic developments are only poorly predictable, responsible education systems will serve their clients best by preparing them for more than a single hoped-for future, and thus today’s universities should support students who want to bet on a world in which they will need fluency in Mandarin, Hindi, or other languages.

In making these arguments, Cohen joins others who consider it shortsighted to hope for, and rely on, the rapid emergence of a monolingual world. Nicholas Ostler forecasts a world of increasing linguistic diversity in his 2010 book, The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel. And, of course, there is a chorus of others (such as Jonathan Kozol) who have claimed it is evil (and self-destructive) for a society to use its public education system to turn out mere units of human capital.

While Cohen is cogent, his argument does seem to imply that the whole debate is largely displaced. If indeed the world is linguistically unpredictable and all its children need to be ready for a variety of linguistic futures and, for other reasons, also fluently plurilingual, then universities aren’t the obvious territory for this reasoning to conquer. Instead, it would seem, boots should be on the grounds of nursery schools, kindergartens, and elementary schools, where time and aptitude conspire to make a multilingual revolution feasible and effective.

7 thoughts on “Paul Cohen to Lawrence Summers: 不对 [older version]

  1. Recently learned that 3/4 of the world’s population is at least bilingual, and most of the other 1/4 are native English speakers. Recent neuroscience shows that cognitive development is enhanced for infants even before they have language if they hear more than one consistently. And lifelong bilinguals have less incidence of Alzheimer’s than monolinguals. Does this count? I’d say so.

  2. More to the point: Summers did not say that foreign language study should be eliminated. He wondered about the future utility of such learning, saying that “it will over time become less essential.” Current trends and developments, he wrote, “make it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile.” What he did was express doubt about popular predictions and assumptions; I would think you would approve of this kind of critical thinking.

    1. So, are you rejecting Cohen’s allegation that “Summers made the case that the study of foreign languages represents a waste of time”? If that misrepresents what Summers asserted, then Cohen set up a straw man. That wouldn’t ruin his analysis, which is based on a massive abandonment of foreign-language instruction in higher education, but it would be an injustice to Summers.

      1. I’m rejecting your claim that “Summers opined in January 2012 that the elimination of foreign languages should be part of a curricular overhaul…” I haven’t read what Cohen says, just what you and Summers say, and what he said was “I am not so sure” that there should be more language study in the future. That’s a far cry from saying it should be done away with now.

  3. If it’s so valuable for a society (e.g., the world) to have more than one language, shouldn’t people be going to remote villages where the people speak only one and forcing them to learn others? Why all the concern about monolingual English speakers and not about monolingual Otjihimba speakers? People have functioned monolingually in their insular societies for millennia. Why couldn’t the whole, shrinking world be such a place?

    1. Good question, but without evidence I wouldn’t assume that the generalization about monolingual villagers is true. Anecdotal accounts abound about villagers who can switch among several languages of neighboring groups, suggesting that they’re isolated enough to have separate languages but not isolated enough to be monolingual. Population censuses and sociolinguistic surveys like those done by SIL ought to provide evidence on the distribution of monolingualism, but I don’t know whether anybody has integrated such sources into a global statistical description.

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