Thursday, September 13, 2012
One of my personal crusades is the need for more language instruction in our schools. Languages are usually cut first, right up there with music and art, as "unnecessary." The chair of the University of Virginia governing board recently proposed to eliminate that school's highly-praised German department, because Germany is now a completely unimportant country with no international influence at all, like, oh, Greece. An evil combination of corporate Philistines, misguided school reformers, and legislative skin-flints work together to deprive as many students as possible of the chance to learn a second language. The foolishness of this idea is evident right now, with the US facing attacks by possibly-coordinated mobs on many of our embassies in western Asia and North Africa. We don't know about this because we have so very few Arabic - speakers who are not imported from that troubled area. We don't teach Arabic in our schools, so we don't have citizens who read Al Jazeera's website and comments. During the era of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," we fired Arabic speakers for being gay, like we had dozens of extras stored somewhere in the State Department supply cabinet. We don't do that any more, but we aren't doing anything to increase the supply, either. Arabic is a very hard language to learn, and the colloquial form spoken on the street isn't much like the formal version spoken by the upper classes. I understand from the two people I know who speak the language that there isn't anything like standard business English that most fluent speakers use. This is not an insurmountable problem, because there are a bunch of jihadi websites published in European languages, especially German and French. The 9/11 hijackers lived in Germany before moving over here, and presumably talked to other people while in Germany. More Americans speaking German might have made a difference there. This is very personal to me right now. I am learning both French and Spanish via Rosetta Stone, and my Spanish has gotten good enough for me to read CNN en español and Univision for news. Venezuela detained the captain of an American ship. American officials were attacked in Mexico. I learned of these two events from Spanish websites. I learned a lot about Latin American opinions of us from reading the comments. I am a better and more informed person from knowing this. How much more would we know about the real sources of the current rioting if more of us could read Arabic or Farsi or one of the European languages spoken by the leaders? I undertand that East Toenail, Idaho can't hire a full-time Arabic or German instructor. With the Internet, however, they can buy Rosetta Stone and allow their students one class period to complete the program. They can administer on-line tests for credit. So what if only six students are interested? The subscription is about a hundred dollars per year for an ordinary consumer; I'm sure the company would be willing to give a price break to school districts, especially if the state leg bought enough for all of its students. Bogota and Powderly, Texas -- the Prairiland Consolidated School District and a real place -- has a couple hundred students. Texas has almost seven million. Giving every student in the state the chance to learn any one of a dozen languages costs very little anymore, but has a tremendous benefit. We should do this, for all of us.