Xenophobia on the wing?

Posted: Mar 12, 2001 12:00 AM
On almost the same day, (1) Iowa declared English to be the state's official language; (2) Drake University, Iowa's largest private college, announced that it would cease offering modern languages in its curriculum; and (3) the Census Bureau announced that the proportion of Hispanic Americans had grown to 12.5 percent of the population, 35 million people.

The decision by Drake's president, David Maxwell, to drop foreign languages was done under his own claim to immunity from the charge of provincialism. The reason? Before becoming president of a college, Mr. Maxwell had been a teacher of Russian. This datum was shot out at his critics in addition to the larger cultural protection: He is all in favor of learning foreign languages, he said, but teaching a foreign language to students sitting in a classroom in the middle of Iowa isn't the way to do it. What you should do is encourage aspirant polyglots to travel abroad and live there in such circumstances as would require them to learn the language thoroughly. If you want to learn French, Mr. Maxwell is saying, go to France.

The Chronicle of Higher Education's Web site registers enormous alarm and disdain over the Drake situation, which leaves l5 foreign language teachers unemployed. "I am totally appalled," writes a Russian-language professor at the University of Utah, "that a university would drop its language programs. Would they dream of dropping the philosophy department? Dropping languages means it may no longer even be worthy of the title of 'university.'"

The old question of course arises, ought education to be tied to utility? The University of Utah has in turn proposed that science majors be relieved of the usual language requirement. Why should scientists be asked to speak to anybody? Are those Hispanics who live in Iowa, now a one-language state, going to settle down in permanent Spanish-speaking enclaves, or will they yield to the national momentum in favor of English?

These questions crowd the cultural landscape. Some will cite the experience of Switzerland, where there are people who speak (only) French, German, Italian and Romansh. And they live side by side happy as lambs.

The trouble with citing Switzerland is that the CH (as they label it -- the Helvetian Confederation) violates all the rules of national concinnity. They speak different languages, but get along with each other fine. They have more guns per capita than the U.S. Army, but they don't shoot each other. The fabled rule of law, the hallmark of civilized national arrangements, is simply absent. One doesn't, in Switzerland, know what the law is, knowing only that if you don't abide by it, there will be a fine to pay. If you shoot the president of Switzerland, it is first required that you identify him, but how much you get docked for bumping him off is certainly specified, in some code book somewhere.

Why is it -- prudent? necessary? advantageous? -- to expose oneself to a foreign language, even if there is no intention, as by the Drake formula, to move to Paris or Moscow or Madrid to perfect one's knowledge? What about the tens of millions who in a hundred years of academe have taken one, two, three years of German or French or Spanish, letting their exposure wither immediately on the vine? Have they nevertheless got something from it, some peephole into the texture of other people?

Mr. Maxwell is skeptical, and it is good that the question has been raised so forthrightly. Will the Hispanic living in Iowa simply be required to learn English, not only if he wishes to attend Drake, but also the University of Iowa, under the new dispensation?

What tugs against the idea that the sweep of English will conquer the world is that there are zero indications that this is happening. It doesn't seem to matter at all that English is the language of movies seen around the world, and the language of the universal music of such as the Beatles. Every language borrows from another for convenience, "Are you free for fifoclocktea tomorrow?" the Frenchman might ask.

But the commitment to one's national tongue is hard-core. When Drake graduates become Iowa legislators, maybe they will arrange for legislative sabbaticals to spend a year in France.