Dyspeptic Rumination

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A French aphorism says, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”: “the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.” It’s sometimes paraphrased in English as, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

My comments, which are petulant and bombastic, arise from an article published by Bénédicte de Montlaur (“Do You Speak My Language? You Should,” NYTimes, 3-26-19.) She is the cultural counselor of the French Embassy in the United States.

It may come as no surprise that data cited by Mme de Montlaur show that from 2013 to 2016 U.S. colleges cut 651 foreign language programs. In America, 20 percent of K-12 students study a foreign language, while in Europe an average of 92 percent do so. Only 10 states impose a foreign language requirement for high school graduation.

The road to Erewhon is a deeply rutted thoroughfare pockmarked with plangent whimpers that someone “needs to” (or “should”) do something about dire situations such as this.

Government spending on foreign-language education… needs to increase. More states need to enforce… Colleges need to recognize… Parents, students and teachers need to lobby…

… Knowing a foreign language is becoming ever more essential.

There’s no reason to doubt the passion and sincerity behind such cries. It’s only that they’re like scolding the waves for lapping the shore. American indifference, even hostility, to foreign languages runs deep. Ever since I can remember, they have been shambling stubbornly — along with music and art — into the education ditches lined already with twitching corpses of other things deemed “crucial” that pedagoguery has knifed.

As if on cue, the effluvium of “holistic education” wafts into the discussion.

… There is a move toward holistic language education, based on the notion that learning a language should be grounded in the real, everyday use of that language.

Grounding language learning in “real, everyday use” is just another way to describe good teaching technique. Educational holism, however, goes further by positing that second-language study is made relevant if it can be “tied to its application in… other fields of study.” One university has programs “aimed at developing language skills that allow [students] to work more effectively in, and to be more attractive to, international companies and organizations.” Another university offers a program “ ‘for students looking to become truly global engineers,’ which combines a foreign language degree with one in engineering.”

Holism, it seems to me, reflects how our culture frowns persistently on forms of learning that don’t promise to serve a practical end. I’m a foreign language major who fled from the
academic career I thought I was prepared for into the provinces of business and technology. I was fortunate, perhaps, to inhabit a moment when such a transition could still be made. I wasn’t formally credentialed to do the work I ended up doing, but my knowledge of languages got me in the door. I suppose I sing willy-nilly in the choir to which Mme de Montlaur is preaching. My dirty secret is that the only reason I studied those languages in the first place is because I liked them and wanted to live abroad.

At a conference on machine translation in New Orleans I dusted off my French to exchange small talk with an engineer from Lyons. On impulse I declaimed a French sonnet I learned in college: “El Desdichado” by Gérard de Nerval. The engineer nodded appreciatively and, switching to perfect English, said, “You left this out, monsieur.” He then recited two lines from the poem that I had omitted, having forgotten them long ago. That a foreigner spoke my native language I took for granted, as Americans do. What impressed me was that an engineer knew by heart a 19th-century French poem with a Spanish title penned by an eccentric suicide. I still believe the “essential” purpose of learning any language is to court surprises and support conversations outside the hive. The rest is just work.

(c) 2019 JMN.

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day, and watch Netflix and Prime Video for entertainment. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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