A Mind That Suits What doesn't kill me, makes me laugh... usually.

Thursday, May 15, 2003 :::
Americans: Dumb About Languages...Ray Bradbury's Future is Now...Washington Reporters Stare At Their Own Navels, Yet Again...

It's Not That Hard, Folks. A Mind That Suits has been reminded recently of that truly odd feature of American culture: our inability to function in other languages. As it happens, A Mind That Suits is perfectly content reading three foreign languages and one dead one, and has never shared in that aspect of American-ness. This is partly due to family influence, and partly due to natural inclination. But he knows that one can indeed learn another language, and most Americans find it beyond imagining. (For an excellent article on a related topic, why American leftists seem to know so little about other cultures, see this great article by Michael Totten in today's OpinionJournal.)

The easiest explanation is probably the proper one: we are an isolated nation. We do not have to speak another language, and most other groups of people live too close to someone else to have that luxury. The Swiss are the obvious example: they have four languages. Apparently, it is quite common for each person to speak his own language in a meeting and get a response in another language. They understand each other, but cannot speak all four languages. Moroccans seem to function the same way: just to live, they have to speak their own local Arabic, the classic Arabic of the Qur'an, and French. And I am surrounded by native Spanish speakers who fully understand what the Gringos are saying but cannot themselves speak English. (My own Spanish is close to the reverse of that.)

Until recently, Americans have not been presented with the necessity of speaking another tongue, and learning another language is hard, no question. A Mind That Suits teaches English to foreigners, and they do not find it easy. Yet they persevere, and achieve some level of fluency. A Mind That Suits even taught himself Italian a few years ago, and is now quite comfortable communicating freely in that language. It helps that Italians are almost uniformly amazed that anyone has learned Italian. The French are not so forgiving.

(A Mind That Suits should note that he is convinced the moment when Spanish should have been the part of any young person's education may be passing: as always happens to immigrants to any country, the dominant culture is winning and the children of Latin American immigrants tend to speak English better than they speak Spanish. This is entirely natural, but those students should be encouraged to study their parents' beautiful language as a foreign language. How much better we would be at dealing with the world if our grandparents and great-grandparents had ensured that their own languages were preserved within their families.)

Americans have somehow turned isolation into an insurmountable psychological block. It's not just that they don't know any foreign languages, it is that they think it is an amazing thing that anyone speaks any other language. But it isn't. For many years, America was represented in many of the world's troublespots by a remarkable man named Vernon Walters. He had, as he himself once recounted to an annoying congressmen, left home at 13 because his family could not support him, learned 7 languages, and risen to be a general in "the mightiest army the world has ever known." His last government job was as US Ambassador to the UN. During his confirmation hearing, Sen. Joe Biden greeted him warmly, and frankly stood in awe of his ability with languages. Gen.Walters responded, with typical self-deprecation, "In Europe, that could get you a job as concierge in a hotel." He was right.

What makes this all so funny is that English is itself one of the hardest languages human beings have ever come up with. On the recognized scale of difficulty used by linguists, English is at the highest level. All languages pose their difficulties for foreigners, but we go over the top. We have a vocabulary that is twice the size of the next largest, difficult syntax, and a mind-numbingly complicated verb system. One word can function freely as a noun or a verb, which in most languages is an impossibility, and some can even be used as adjectives and adverbs as well. And we prize clarity above all else in writing, so there is precious little room for error.

Professors capitalize on their students' fear and awe of foreign languages, frankly, by lying, and saying that such-and-such a language "says it so much better." It makes them feel superior, and prevents the kids from getting restless and asking questions. One wants to draw students into a feeling of joy and mystery as they learn, but there are better ways. As Americans really do stink at learning languages, it would probably be better if professors started by extolling the beauty and difficulty of English, so that the students are attracted to learning, and recognize the wealth in their own culture, as well.

But There Are Enemies of Learning Anything, Not Just Languages. The Journal yesterday ran an appreciation of Ray Bradbury, the fantasy writer best know for his one piece of science fiction, Fehrenheit 451. The name, of course, is the termperature at which paper burns, and it describes a society in which reading has been banned. He said he did not write it to predict the future, but to prevent it. He also feels he may have failed, pointing to the disaster of American education. One of the major issues that no one wishes to confront squarely is that the schools are dominated by people who think any kind of real learning is "irrelevant," leaving students trapped with an inability to function in the real world. And our universities are dominated by philosophies such as deconstructionism and phony multiculturalism, which reduce real cultural difference to trivia.

The French have been real pioneers in this kind of education, and it is worth looking at the consequences for French society. When Chirac first came to power, the French rioted--as they have this week--over Chirac's feeble attempts to lessen the cost of government. Fishermen in Northwestern France torched an ancient city hall, burning documents from as far back as 600 years ago. So much for the European reverence for history. About the same time, it was revealed, through comparative testing, that the bottom 40% of French society was the worst educated in the entire developed world, as opposed to their upper classes, which are the most educated. That was because the French upper classes want the French lower classes to be slaves.

Why People Find Reporters Annoying. In a worthwhile discussion of the Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times, longtime WSJ Washington Bureau Chief Al Hunt recounts the story of how Woodward and Bernstein worked the Watergate story and "brilliantly turned this second-rate burglary into the story of the century." Story of the century? A Mind That Suits disagrees, rather strongly. Nearly all of the mass murder committed by the totalitarian socialist regimes of the 20th Century was conducted behind closed doors, and it took determined and brave reporters like Malcolm Muggeridge and William Shawcross to reveal the horror of these crimes. Watergate isn't even on the charts.

::: posted by A Mind That Suits at 12:11 PM



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