This is a revised version of an earlier entry, correcting inaccuracies in the characterization of the position of Lawrence Summers. Thanks to S.M. Colowick for helping bring these to light.
Historian Paul Cohen has entered the eternal debate about the value of multilingualism with a warning not to heed the advice of economist Lawrence Summers about the value of foreign languages. Summers opined in January 2012 that (paradoxically) higher education will retain its value in the future only if it instills ever more cosmopolitanism in students, and yet this may not imply a need for more instruction in foreign languages. Summers conceded that mastery of a second language confers “insights”, but claimed that for some practical international tasks speakers of English will likely be able to rely increasingly on their own language. 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 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.
Cohen also, unnecessarily for his argument, summarizes Summers somewhat exaggeratedly. It seems indefensible to me to say that Summers “made the case that the study of foreign languages is a waste of time”. More accurately, Summers made the case that, if the only purpose of learning a foreign language were to conduct certain transactions in it, the continued adoption of English as a second language and the continued improvement of automated translation would make it rational for some persons to invest time in studying other things instead. Cohen’s true foe is not Summers, but the systemic treatment of liberal education, including the humanities in general and foreign languages in particular, as a frill.