john_mcwhorter's picture
Professor of Linguistics and Western Civilization, Columbia University; Cultural Commentator; Author, Words on the Move
Associate Professor of Linguistics

Dear President Bush:

Recent geopolitical events bring into sharp relief the inadequacy of foreign language training in the United States. I am dismayed by the inability of our high schools and universities to impart a truly useful competence in foreign languages to any but the most self-directed and dedicated of students.

Obviously, our country is in dire need of people proficient in Arabic, to assist us in defending ourselves against Islamicist terrorists. The shortage of such people in the FBI, CIA, and Foreign Service is truly chilling, as we see days go by before we even have worthy translations of Arabic-language statements and documents.

Yet not only are few institutions of learning equipped to impart Arabic to students, but even fewer are equipped to do so at anything beyond an elementary level that will serve little use in the urgent circumstances that confront us.

This is an especially serious problem with Arabic, a language that seems to present a virtual hydra-head of challenges. The script is elaborate, takes a great deal of practice to master, and only approximately spells out the sounds of words. The vocabulary is too different from English's to ease learning through ample cognates (opportunity/opportunidad in Spanish, milk/Milch in German). And on top of this, spoken Arabic varies from country to country to the point that Egyptians, for example, speak essentially a different language from Moroccans, and all of the spoken varieties are almost as different from the written one as French and Spanish are from Latin. The typical college student who has studied Arabic for a year has essentially learned how to decode text and utter simple sentences—which is useless in decoding a memo written in running script by a terrorist, or even in understanding a speech by an Arab official.

Military institutions, and other bodies with a concrete reason for teaching their charges foreign languages well, such as religious bodies, have long used truly effective, intense language-learning programs that produce competent foreign language speakers. It is also clear that European countries regularly give their students a solid grounding in English that has always been the envy of Americans. For years, I have been amazed at how an obscure series of books published by the Assimil company in Europe can give the solitary learner a decent conversational competence in any language in just six months of home study, so cleverly are the lessons arranged to impart what is really needed to speak the language in real life.

But meanwhile, school textbooks, for all their claims to teach "the language as it is really spoken", continue in a tradition of foreign language teaching descended from conceptions of grammar based on how Latin happens to be constructed, imparting tiny vocabularies ("my uncle is a lawyer but my aunt has a spoon") and rarely lending the learner any genuine sense of the "feel" of how native speakers actually put living sentences together. Language training rarely affords the student any serious time speaking the language at length on meaningful subjects. It is common to come away from several years of classes in, say, French or Spanish unable to even carry on a simple conversation with a native. Language training that leaves the student unable to say "This smells like a rose", "Never mind", "The car is stuck in the mud" or "Take your feet off the table"—sentences that eight years of dedicated French "teaching" left me unable to render—does not deserve the name.

The time has passed when our country could afford for excellent language teaching to be limited to circumstances lending specialized training to a few. Language teaching schools like Berlitz, the military, and even findings from academic specialists in second-language teaching have long bypassed our schools and universities in foreign language teaching. In our moment, it is high time that an effort on a nationwide scale be made to not only impart foreign languages to students, but to do it in an effective way.

And in these times, our efforts must be focused as much on languages like Chinese, Arabic, and Persian as the "old standby" languages like French, Spanish and German. Our geopolitical situation requires this, and the marvelous ethnic mixture of our country since the Immigration Act of 1965 renders it even more urgent, in helping to foster understanding and exchange in a new kind of America.


John H. McWhorter
Associate Professor of Linguistics, UC Berkeley
Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute
Author of Losing The Race: Self-Sabotage In Black America and The Power Of Babel: A Natural History Of Language.