A Language Emergency
August 21, 2011

Marjorie Perloff has written an insightful essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education about a "curious insularity" that she sees having appeared in the United States as a reaction to the decade of anxiety over 9/11. She wonders whether it is now time to "look outward," as events remind us that this country is neither alone among world powers nor self-sufficient. I would go further than Perloff. We face a language emergency.

Misconceived national programs, a superficial approach to the world's linguistic diversity, and a poor articulation of the stakes of language learning to the public have brought us a crisis.

The different standpoints involved in promoting the acquisition of languages at the national level—government agencies, learned societies, scholars, and the general public—are out of sync with each other. Priorities and attention lurch in one direction or another, and funding moves here and there. Meanwhile, we lack a long-term vision of languages as the mortar that connects education, policy, and history.

It's natural to be concerned about the state of knowledge in the big languages. Can we ever have enough Americans who know Chinese or Hindi? But no less worrisome is the lack of attention to local and indigenous languages, which have a strategic importance distinct from that of Arabic, Persian, or Russian. It goes without saying—but I'll say it anyway—that apart from geopolitical factors, such languages are always important, as carriers of cultural knowledge. And as Meredith Ramirez Talusan recently wrote on Arcade, most "minor" languages are someone's major language. We can't rely on such heavy-handed categories, if only because events will often show otherwise.

I agree with most of Perloff's essay, although I'm not much moved by her response to animal studies nor by the claim that "planet" is a term that only the decade of the 2000s would embrace. (For some perspective, put "planet" into the n-gram viewer.) But I part company with her over the undefined "we" in her piece. Who is this "we"? The essay tosses together scholars (of animal studies and other emerging fields) with students (of Arabic and other languages) and the general public. In reality, each of these populations has its own relation to the crisis in language studies, and no call to "look outward" will reach all of them.

The sudden attention to Arabic studies after 9/11, which Perloff rightly derides as unlikely to produce a new cohort of Arabic speakers or a lasting change in the general culture, was only the latest in a long series of reactive measures to deal with language after reverses or catastrophes. The U.S. government has long conceived of priorities in language education in short-term perspective, and teachers and scholars have acquiesced.

Perhaps the most sophisticated initiative now is the Critical Language Scholarship Program administered by the Department of State, which sponsors institutes and offer scholarships for study of thirteen "critical need" languages: Arabic, Azerbaijani, Bengali, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Punjabi, Russian, Turkish, and Urdu. "Critical need" here obviously reflects about a ten-year horizon of what the State Department expects to happen in the world, considering demographics and economic growth; you can almost make a diagram of the predictions that animate this list of languages.

The CLS Program scarcely allows for the factors that probably have more to do with whether a language becomes a "critical need," namely culture, history, and ideology. Arabic was notoriously neglected by institutional programs such as this before 9/11. What languages are missing here as institutions react to recent events or headline-level trends? We need the kind of commitment that would allow the U.S. as a society to cultivate expertise broadly in both language and culture not for ten but for twenty-five or fifty years from now. According to the Modern Language Association, enrollment in Arabic-language courses across the nation was 5,505 in 1998, and 35,083 eleven years later—a wild swing of the pendulum that speaks to the lack of a coherent national policy over the long term.

Before my next post on this topic, I will be thinking about the arguments for a program to cultivate "minor" as well as major languages, and the challenges to a national policy on languages. I welcome comments and rejoinders. Perloff has named a problem that deserves a serious response.

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