Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Self-Limiting

Thanks (I think) to writer Daniel Ward for challenging the latest nonsense to be issued by Lawrence Summers, the economist and former Harvard president who recently argued, among other things, that it is no longer necessary to learn languages other than English. My only hesitation in thanking Ward is that prior to reading his article, I had been blissfully unaware of the mis-titled essay What You (Really) Need to Know. Summers is actually correct in some of his assertions about what modern higher education should include; as several online comments indicate, however, he seems remarkably unaware of the extent to which professors are already doing some of the things he calls for.

Summers drew the most ire -- and rightly so -- for his assertion that English dominance means that U.S. students can skip learning other languages. Without irony, he makes this claim as part of his item #5, which calls for an education that "breeds cosmopolitanism." He argues that the willingness of many Asians to learn English makes is "less essential" for North Americans to learn other languages. To some extent, it is true that it is easier to be monolingual in English than in many other languages, but there are costs, both economic and intangible. As my colleague Dr. Michael Kryzanek recently wrote in Going from Punchline to Global Citizens, some English speakers abroad are starting to push back a bit against monolingual arrogance.

Back to Daniel Ward -- From his article The Word is Your Oyster, I learned that the majority of people in the world speak at least two languages, a fact I was able to confirm in Richard Tucker's survey on bilingualism in education. Ward argues that monolingualism is "the acceptance of limitations," wryly noting that it should not be part of any child's vocabulary.

See my Small World page for more on the debate over language learning in higher education. Incidentally, the quiz site JetPunk has a number of quizzes related to the geography of languages. The English-Speaking Countries quiz, for example, lists all 16 countries in which at least 50 percent of the population speaks English as a first language, while the Spanish-Speaking Countries quiz identifies 19 countries where the same is true for Spanish. The English-Speaking Cities quiz identifies 21 cities of more than 2 million population, in which English is the dominant language -- at least some of the results are surprising. The Cities by Language quiz lists the largest city in which each of twenty languages is dominant. Countries and Languages identifies the countries containing the greatest number of speakers of each of thirty languages, with some countries being listed for more than one language! Finally, the Top World Languages quiz simply lists fifty languages, each of which has at least 20 million native speakers. If you are like me, you might not have heard of some of these!

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