Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why Languages?

Most bloggers try to show off their knowledge and insight. As regular readers will note, I find it more educational to display my ignorance. One of the many,many things I don't understand is why Universities would teach modern languages? Von Prondzynski brought it up yesterday on his blog, in the context of some departments facing the axe, which people seem to think is a bad thing. I don't get it, but I'm keen to hear a reason.

Some disclosure up front - I studied sciences - Geology - in University, and have not formally studied any language since French in secondary school. My apex achievement in foreign languages was giving an Italian tourist in Venice comprehensible and accurate directions in his own language (at least I think they were comprehensible and accurate, he went off in the right direction). I don't know much about how modern languages departments operate, or what precisely they might do, so feel free to enlighten me in the comments.

There seem to be two reasons expressed to do foreign languages in University. First, to be able to communicate in the language and second, to deepen our understanding of the culture (for the purpose of commerce or the joy of learning). Both these reasons were entirely valid up until, perhaps, the mid 1990's, when Ryanair and the Globalisation wave made a nonsense of them.

Supposing I wanted to learn, for arguments sake, Mandarin. Suppose I was prepared to invest an amount of time and money equivalent to a minor on a 3 year degree - say a year of my life, plus fees, and so on. I'd buy a plane ticket to China. While waiting for flights and visas, I'd might slog through a Linguaphone or Rosetta Stone pack, but I know I'll learn it a lot faster 'In Country'. Arrive, and go total immersion. I'm sure there's any number of schools in China that could provide support for that there there, and help to connect me to people for conversational classes. If I could legally work, I'd find someone that needed my English so I could get into a professional environment and have to speak the native language each day. It would be tough, but after a year of it, I'd reckon I'd a be well ahead of my alter ego studying in a language lab back home.

Will that help me grasp the culture? I might not be up to much on the literary theory, but I reckon by the years end I'll have a pretty good concept of how the place works. Again, a long mile ahead of the peer in the language lab back home, and much more useful know how on how to do business, live and thrive, in the place.

From a commercial perspective, as an employer needing someone with a language or country skills, someone who had lived and, ideally worked in that country for a time would seem a much better bet than someone who had simply studied it from afar. Indeed, for most cases, an local employer who needed staff with a grasp of, say, China, would be better off hiring people from China with some English, rather than the other way around.

In fairness to the modern University, the Erasmus programmes (in Europe) provide something of a framework for the kind of model I'm talking about, and I can't imagine that modern languages departments turn out graduates without them spending a substantial proportion of their degree time in country. But beyond providing enough basic language skills to students before pushing them off the deep end to total immersion, and perhaps organising an effective total immersion experience (work placements and so on) what role do modern languages departments have in Universities in the 21st century? How does it work?

Up until globalisation began to bite, they made perfect sense. When a year in Germany, or China or wherever was much more expensive than a year in your local University, then studying locally makes economic sense, even if it isn't as good. Now that just isn't the case, especially if you cost it out by language contact hours.

Note I'm not criticising the value of learning a foreign language and culture, for business or pleasure, I'm just puzzling over the role modern languages departments have to play in that, moving forward. Nor am I criticising the Classical Language and Culture Departments. I'm told Cicero is beautiful in Latin, and there there is much Arabic and pre Modern Chinese material that remains unstudied and untranslated. With no travel option there, a University Department is a good a forum for them as any.

So what am I missing? Noting the gaps in my knowledge on the topic, I have a very open mind on the matter, but I have a strong suspicion that this is an Emperors New Clothes scenario, where these departments exist because they have always existed, and defending the status quo is almost the defining action of modern Universities. What do modern language departments do that is really future proof? If my daughter, in 2022, says she want to do a University degree in Hindi, what should I tell her?

[Postscript - There is, I think, useful elaboration in the comments. If you have read this and are now angry, do please read on. If you have read this and are not angry, you really must read on to catch the counterarguments.]