A Language Policy: Start Locally, Invest Widely
October 24, 2011

In a previous post under the title "A Language Emergency," I responded to a brief statement in which Marjorie Perloff noted the insularity of the "tedious discourse of self-reflection" in the United States, especially its results for how Americans are encouraged to learn languages. While I agree with Marjorie's essay, I argued that the "looking outward" she urges ought to be made concrete by a new national policy toward languages. Obviously the illusion that, because of U.S. power, English is sufficient for crossing all borders is untenable and deplorable, and as Marjorie notes in a response to my post, we want people to learn languages that matter to them as early in life as possible—the more people and the more languages, the better.

Time has passed since that exchange, and I have been thinking about the issue as well as absorbing the important responses to my original post by Marjorie, Meredith Ramirez Talusan, Cécile Alduy, and Paul Pedersen. But here I want to focus for a moment on where a national policy would do more than organize personal choices into a coherent program. The crucial fact for which we need such a policy is the gap between what individuals want and what a society needs.

The ultimate value of a large-scale policy to encourage the learning of languages is to secure the future: the future not only of scholarship and advanced reading, but of regular, unpredictable contact, including communication among persons, institutions, and governments, everyday as well as complex, in and out of official channels. From the standpoint of the future, contact is the foundation of relationships. Everything about a language policy should serve the goal of contact.

In this spirit, we should look skeptically at the emphasis on "critical need" languages promoted by the State Department and other institutions. Naturally there are some languages that are more "important" than others from one perspective or another; Marjorie makes this observation about Hungarian's standing compared to that of Russian from a general American perspective. We can't promote or fund the study of everything. But a nimble policy would augment "critical need" languages with "conceivable need" languages, and identify the later in some cases out of minority languages within strategically vital countries, or languages that house especially potent intellectual or religious conversations, or languages that are simply understudied in relation to the size and locations of their populations.

There are a number of languages that don't seem to be "critical" until one day they are, and many more that play a catalytic role for minority populations within countries. Uighur, the language of a largely Muslim people of that name in China, is one of the latter. Does it make sense that as of two years ago, five people in the U.S. were studying it? Not many Americans know even of the existence of Tzotzil, with only 400,000 speakers in Mexico; according to the MLA, not one person studies it in American colleges, a fact I find hard to believe. But Tzotzil is at the core of a culture and a revolutionary movement in southern Mexico that may someday alter the balance of power in that society. Many countries have their Uighur and Tzotzil.

Now why would you or I decide to learn Uighur or Tzotzil instead of Chinese or Arabic? Chances are, we wouldn't. We would think of our self-interest, and go for the languages that would offer a job, prestige, success.

But a policy would set collective—national—priorities that would not necessarily coincide with those of particular students. A policy would create incentives for people to learn less common languages, provide resources for maintaining a base of knowledge about these languages, and deploy technology to bring together native speakers, instructors, and students. A policy would ensure that a national agenda would amount to more than the sum of innumerable individual decisions.

Such measures would make American students and scholars something other than observers and alarmists when power migrates. Imagine a language-learning initiative that participated in discussions around the world before they became "critical," and anticipated world events instead of reacting to them.

These questions ought to be the topic of a conversation not only in the State Department and other diplomatic and philanthropic institutions, but among our learned societies such as the American Historical Association, the Association of American Geographers, the Middle East Studies Association, the Latin American Studies Association, and of course the Modern Language Association. Could we leverage the combined clout of these organizations to attract visibility to a new national policy on languages? Could we approach the issues pertaining to each of these disciplines (departments closing, resources moving to close-range and presentist topics) not as isolated cases but as the symptoms of a language emergency?

I don't know the answers to these questions. But I believe that what is at stake requires something other than one more reorientation in a series of inward and outward turns that never change the pattern of how languages are perceived in the wider culture.

Marjorie Perloff is right that Americans have the luxury of inhabiting the premier international language, which eases communication even as it compromises the deeper understanding that must be the end of a national language policy. Even the idea of an "international language" is a misapprehension—not because it doesn't reflect the facts on the ground, but because it provides a flawed model for future initiatives. Locked as English speakers are into the notion of universality, we continually look for the major languages of the moment—Chinese, Hindi, or Korean—that will make the world legible all at once. What if we adopted a different model, starting locally and investing widely?

Finally, a "languages for the long term" initiative needs a vivid conceit and an accessible venue. To envision just one example, I would like to see the various learned societies create together a podcast on languages—not idealizing the major languages or recirculating clichés about rendering the world legible, but granting serious attention to the entire spectrum of languages, including the attractions and dilemmas of learning the local, the "minor," and the indigenous. Each discipline has practitioners who can speak stirringly to the particular and advanced knowledge that becomes available through languages. But a podcast is only one possibility, the first one that occurs to me. Other media might work better. And how to integrate media productions (podcasts, videos, games, simulations) into curricula at all levels is another question to be addressed by such a policy.

In 2004 Humphrey Tonkin, the former president of the University of Hartford, issued an admirable report following a plenary meeting on national language policy at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). Tonkin makes many of the arguments glanced at here but with greater persuasiveness and complexity. I urge everyone interested in this topic to read his report.

Language emergencies will never seem as urgent as military or economic crises. They simmer more than boil, and as a society that prizes reaction over reflection, we always wait until, now and then, they boil over.

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