Of late, it has been considered glum news when a university such as the State University of New York at Albany eliminates its French major. Yet there were those who mourned the eclipse of the horse-and-buggy not so long ago. I highly suspect that this news from SUNY and elsewhere, in conjunction with reports of universities bulking up instruction in Arabic and Chinese, is the beginning of a more sensible future in language teaching in the United States.
In fact, I, despite having earned a B.A. in French myself, have a tripartite vision for what the language teaching norm in America should be by 2050. It includes many fewer me's and many more students prepared for the linguistic reality of our world as opposed to Woodrow Wilson's. Ideally, we will also see not only a revolution in the array of languages most taught, but in how they are taught as well.
1. Chinese and Arabic first, with Spanish as training wheels. With China poised to become the economic behemoth, and our most pressing diplomatic problems being with people most of whom speak Arabic, an America where Western European languages are considered central to an education has become a puzzlement.
There was a time when French, for example, was Europe's international language, when for most Westerners, Europe was also effectively shorthand for "the world." This has changed: English, for better or for worse, is the international language for Europe and far beyond. French is the vehicle for an interesting culture, indeed—but in 2011, upon what grounds does this culture exert a higher priority upon our acquaintance than any number of others? To many, the cultures of China and the Middle East would seem to have a certain primacy for modern Americans, and a Martian observer would be baffled as to why there would be any question about the matter.
Our embrace of French as a mark of wider horizons is a conditioned reflex, making about as much sense in our modern moment as throwing rice at a bride. Why not barley? Or corn flakes? Or blowing on little plastic bassoons? Whatever the reason, the chances are infinitesimal that we would choose rice if starting over in ignorance of past tradition. The same goes for French, German, and Italian. Europe is home to a mere couple of hundred of the world's 6,000 languages. Quite a few of the remaining 5,800 are important to America's present and future. Chinese and Arabic stand out among them.
This is all the more important because both are structured so much differently than English—that is, they are "diverse" as we moderns term it. There are those who question a mission in "identity" departments to encourage students to study themselves rather than to broaden their horizons to study the world. Such cavils would apply equally to the Western Europe fetish in language teaching. French and German belong to the same language family as English, Indo-European: they are cats to English's dog.
Chinese is based on a collection of monosyllables that become a vocabulary through pronouncing the syllables on different tones to indicate meanings: in Cantonese, depending on the pitch yau can mean worry, paint, thin, oil, again or friend. To acquire Chinese, along with its magnificently baroque writing system, is to expand the mind into a greater awareness of the immense variation possible in human expression. It is a different planet. In comparison, French and German are like a vacation two towns over.
Arabic, meanwhile, has another fabulous writing system as well as a grammar unlike the "amo, amas, amat" style we are familiar with, in which a skeleton of three consonants can become a world of related words based on what you squeeze around them: katiib "writer," kitaab "book,"kataba "he wrote," maktab "school." Again, this is education in its etymological sense of "being led out of," as opposed to the shorter trip offered by European languages. And as for the argument that European languages are vehicles of massive literatures, let's face it—when were most of us going to get around to reading "Madame Bovary" in the original?
Of course, European languages should be available for those interested—as Arabic and Chinese have been "available" on the sidelines. However, only one of them should be held front and center: Spanish. For one, its utility to us is much more immediate than the rice at a wedding, useful to communication with a massive contingent of Americans. And then, because Spanish, as a Western European language, is so much easier to pick up for us than Chinese and Arabic, it can serve as a "gateway" language for younger people. An idea would be for schools to offer Spanish starting in elementary school as a linguistic warm-up, with exposure to Chinese and Arabic beginning in middle school.
2. Reading should be secondary to speaking. One of the pitfalls in the teaching of languages with non-Roman writing systems is that so much time is spent from the outset on teaching the script that the students do not learn how to actually say much. Yet he who offers a conversational repertoire consisting largely of naming objects, exclaiming set expressions likeGood morning, and reciting sentiments such as My uncle is a lawyer but my aunt has a spoon is at a distinct social disadvantage.
Yet too often this is most of what students of Chinese, Arabic, Japanese and the like are capable of after even a whole school year of study, because so much time is spent drilling the writing system. It's also easy for students to get weary or discouraged when this is most of the yield after so long.
Certainly one should be able to read in a language one has learned—eventually. However, the idea that reading must happen at the outset of one's acquaintance with a new language is based on a mistaken impression, understandable but pernicious, that writing "is" language on a certain level. To be a literate modern person is to think of a language as its written version, with speaking as a casual reflection of it. However, only about 200 of the world's 6,000 languages are written ones, and writing has only existed for less than 6,000 years. Fundamentally, language is speech and always has been. Speech is not a messy reflection of language; writing is a studied and inaccurate refraction of speech.
We intuitively understand the primacy of speech when it comes to our native language. We do not discourage an infant from speaking until he or she masters writing. Note also a cognitive disjunction one encounters with foreigners or children of immigrants who speak a language like Tamil fluently and yet sheepishly mention that they can't write it. In such cases we do not think, "Then you don't really know the language, do you?" as they converse in it on the phone.
This means, however, that in my ideal language-teaching scenario, languages like Chinese and Arabic should be taught first in Romanized transliteration. The writing system should be introduced gradually, with no sense of it being the primary object of study. This will mean, it should be clear, that the student of Arabic will only very gradually be able to decode Arabic writing – but will much more quickly be able to have modestly contentful conversations, which will only heighten students' motivation to learn the writing system (it's no more fun to read about uncles and spoons than to talk about them, after all).
3. Revise the conception of what idioms are. To get as far beyond those uncles and spoons as quickly as possible, in my 2050 utopia there will have been a complete revision of what are considered idioms in language teaching. Too often, we come away from years of studying a language unable to express things as utterly everyday in a human experience as "It's the wrong kind anyway." Instead, one is able to refer eagerly to cousins, bathing suits, silverware and other things often rarely engaged at length in conversation.
Much of the reason is a sense that a language consists of 1) the basic meanings of individual words and 2) grammar such as tables of endings, with all else as idioms one is expected to pick up, if one ever does, upon living in the language. However, linguists are increasingly aware that the brain processes idioms like words. For example, "up a storm" in "He talked up a storm" is retained as a "word" alongside words you could substitute in the sentence like "copiously," or other constructions like "a lot" or "at length." To the extent that expressing a concept is fundamental to being human, then "idiom" or not, it is as vital to language teaching as the word for "Tuesday."
A certain few idioms have a classic status and are taught early, such as French's "Je m'appelle," ("I call myself") for "My name is," a usage of "call" that, from an English perspective, is non-basic. Yet what makes "My name is" more important than "pretend," which in French is "faire semblant" ("make seeming-as")? This is an "idiom" much more central to speaking a language than venturing insights about your aunt or even counting past 30.
Namely, in my experience grappling with languages, I find six basic concepts key to not rolling into the linguistic gutter at every second attempt to say what you are actually thinking. Key ways of expressing these concepts should be imparted long before most irregular verbs or how to say "socks." They amount to an acronym, DEPICT. To speak is to be able to: Disapprove beyond just not liking ("the wrong hat," "it doesn't fit," "it's supposed to be…"); Experience beyond mere liking ("looks," "sounds," "smells," "tastes," "feels like," "you can tell"); Precisify ("all the way up to," "that much," "right into"); render the Inexact ("and things like that," "about four of them," "not necessarily"); convey Counterexpectation ("even without a shirt," "do it anyway"); and Transform ("make it nicer," "pretend").
These things are generally no more difficult to acquire than basic words, as witnessed by how quickly students take to German's "Wie geht's" and French's "il y a" for "there is." In the language teaching of the future, concepts in the DEPICT class must be taught as urgently as words and grammar if students are to actually learn to use the languages they are taught.
In the future, then, language teaching should expand minds further than we are accustomed to, unshackled from linguistic assumptions which can only be termed prejudices: that the languages most like ours are central to enlightenment, that there is no meaningful progress in learning a language without being able to read it, and that beyond words and tables is an outer ring of idioms rather than the very heart of speaking. Surely, this expanded sense of language study would bring us closer to the heart of the liberal arts mission than expounding in French about what color our niece's forks are.
John McWhorter is the William Simon Fellow at Columbia University and a contributing editor to the New Republic.