Endangered tongues

We’re not surprised you speak our language
By SARA FAITH ALTERMAN  |  May 9, 2007


You may have read: the world is getting smaller. The buzz-word for that is globalization, and it’s come to embrace everything ubiquitous and universal — from McDonalds, the Internet, and franchising to Chomsky and half-caf, non-fat lattes. The world’s cultures, the theory goes, are being melded into one gigantic conglomerate gurgling with fast food and e-commerce. Your T-shirt was made in Guatemala by 12-year-olds; your car is a jigsaw puzzle of pieces shipped from all corners of the world. And when you vacation on the far side of the world, everyone you encounter speaks English. We’ve come to expect it.

We grumble about Europeans (especially the goddamned French) and their refusal to speak our language, despite the fact that we know they can. That’s partly because we Yanks are arrogant bastards suffering from cultural elitism. And partly because globalization has, in fact, given English a leg up among America’s trading partners. Statistics, as of 2005, estimated that as many as 350 million non-native speakers know English. Meanwhile, more and more international business is being conducted through the Pacific Rim, not Western Europe. The fallout from all this is being felt not just in Malaysian tourist hotels, but on American college campuses, where recent years have seen a few drastic shifts in language departments.

“I think it’s a reality that as English becomes more the lingua franca of the world, fewer students tend to be majoring in any of the [traditional] foreign languages,” says Professor Robin Miller, the Chair of the Department of German, Russian, and Asian Languages and Literature at Brandeis.

According to Boston-area academics, the study of some languages is fading fast — especially the study of languages that won’t help Americans communicate with global business executives whose companies produce car parts or electronics. At several local schools, the least subscribed majors today are languages such as Russian and Greek, tongues that may have been useful during the Cold War or fraternity rush, but now won’t help us further our national agenda.

The Office of Research and Analysis for the College of Arts and Sciences at Harvard cites Germanic Languages, Classics (including Latin), and Sanskrit as its least popular majors. All right, fine, we’ll accept the fate of Sanskrit in all but scholarly circles. But Germanic languages? That includes the study of English, you know. (“Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages/And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes . . .” and all that.)

This is not to say that nobody is learning a foreign language any more, but the ones who do are focusing on tongues more foreign to Western ears than French, Spanish, German, and even Russian, which may be the greatest casualty of this global shift.

“Russian is a very difficult language,” notes Miller. “It’s as difficult as Chinese and Japanese, but those languages are experiencing a huge upswing, because they’re of value to students. They feel it will enhance their careers."

Though the undergraduate experience was once a forum for academic (and social, and probably sexual, if you’re talking about liberal arts college) exploration, students have become increasingly more goal and career oriented. Guided by tunnel vision and the promise of a high salary or an advanced degree, undergrads are choosing their majors carefully, basing them, it would seem, on the current state of global affairs.

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