Michael Mordarski: Prioritize language study

Monday, November 13, 2017 - 11:00am

“I never use the word very. It is a very weak word.”

That quote from former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is written on a whiteboard above my desk.

It’s there alongside other quotes from an almost comically diverse group of writers and public figures, which the warmongering Rumsfeld is a part of. Quotes from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, George Carlin, Khaled Hosseini and Aaron Sorkin overfill this whiteboard in fading dry-erase colors.

And as an avid reader and writer, I like to think they serve as reminders about how effective written and verbal communication can be within our world.

No matter how poorly others may think of my writing, I take pride in my efforts when attempting to thread together words and thoughts in order to inspire emotion and motivation within my readers (see my article “We smug liberals”).

And if I could do anything in the world, it would be writing speeches for a future president of the United States.

Yet, this passion I have for writing is restricted to a single language. I have not truly expanded these skills and talents into anything other than English.

Sure, as LSA students here, we are required to develop proficiency in a foreign language. And most likely, many of us, after years of tepid practice in elementary and high school, develop a beginner’s fluency in our language of study. But in the overall spectrum of our higher education, the courses are not properly stressed as being equal to the core requirements for our degrees — but they should be.

The importance of another language is paramount in the rapidly changing world. Physical distance no longer matters as the instantaneous connection between countries continues to expose us to new people, cultures and economies.

Participating in this new hyper-connected world requires learning new languages in order to break down the final barriers holding us back from connections across the globe.

America has a language skills problem. My self-absorbed story at this university is not even remotely exclusive. Across the country, foreign language is viewed as secondary to the more emphasized core courses within education.  

The Atlantic published a piece last year that highlighted the ineffective way in which our education system teaches foreign languages throughout the country. The author, Amelia Friedman, argued that foreign language courses are not prioritized, which has a massive impact on students early on. The secondary level at which we value these courses prevents the proper funding, emphasis and applicability of learning a new language within schools early on.

This lack of prioritization creates low enrollment levels in which a cycle emerges where fewer students study a foreign language, and less work is put in to promote such courses.

And even the languages that are studied are still primarily European and not applicable of the emerging global markets. According to Friedman’s article, “In 2013, roughly 198,000 U.S. college students were taking a French course; just 64, on the other hand, were studying Bengali. Yet, globally, 193 million people speak Bengali, while 75 million speak French.”

Mandarin, Arabic, Bengali and Hindi — all languages on which we place less emphasis, despite them being some of the most widely spoken in the world. All these languages of peoples and markets are ready to be connected to, but only if these communication barriers could be more effectively broken.  

In totality, the academic culture we learn in can make people feel intimidated when they attempt to learn a foreign language. According to Richard Brecht, the founding executive director and founder of the Center for Advanced Study of Language at the University of Maryland, “It isn’t that people don’t think language education important. It’s that they don’t think it’s possible.” Learning a new language is challenging, and maintaining it is even more difficult within the United States, as there is often a lack of opportunities to practice and maintain such skills.

But the world has shrunk; the globalized economies we live in can provide such connections. Prioritizing foreign languages would further encourage us to study these courses and be able to transfer such skills to the professional world.

To be clear, the teachers and instructors are not the ones at fault here. Personally speaking, here at the University of Michigan, I have had some of the most hard-working, passionate and caring instructors who deeply cared about students gaining this immensely resourceful skill, and I know fellow students who have felt the same way about other instructors.

I just wish there was greater emphasis placed on this requirement, not only in college and high school, but far earlier on within our elementary classrooms as well.

I take pride in my writing and communication, but I have, in the most underachieving way, restricted myself from billions of others in our world.

There is another quote on my whiteboard that comes from George Carlin. He was once said: “Language is the most elementary aspect to our humanness, probably. In addition to that, it's the embodiment, it's the apotheosis of the human experience, it's the way we summarize ourselves.”

Learn another language; the world is a small place.

Michael Mordarski can be reached at mmordars@umich.edu