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Language and Culture

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences just released a report addressing how language learning influences “economic growth, cultural diplomacy, the productivity of future generations, and the fulfillment of all Americans.” This report grew out of a larger effort to create a set of indicators on the health of the humanities in US society.

The report makes the case that the ability to communicate in “world languages,” in addition to English, will be critical to successful leadership in the 21st century. This is consistent with a view of “world-readiness.” However, it’s also true for effective leadership in any diverse country with multiple language groups.

The report notes that the US has lagged behind other countries in language skills, with 79% of those older than 4 years speaking only English. The goal, espoused by the report, is that all persons would be exposed to a second language and the cultures surrounding that language. The logic of this recommendation is that the 21st century will require facile interaction with cultures throughout the world. It follows that language learning has to be an embedded part of a modern educational philosophy.

The discussion notes that languages either become de-emphasized or become “hot” because of world events. The Cold War led to investments and interest in Russian and related languages; the events of September 11, 2001 led to a rise in popularity of Arabic language skills. Such temporal shocks cause uncertainty in the human resource needs in language skill development. A more orderly environment would provide guidance to students on what language skills would be most useful when paired with their career aspirations. In essence, this would be an embedding of language and cultural skills in all globally oriented higher education.

Finally, the report notes that language, culture, and the nature of disciplinary nomenclatures across countries are all part of a single whole. It argues that immersion in another culture, especially when one is exposed to work groups in one’s field, can be a life-long career benefit. The report reminds us that real global leadership requires the ability to communicate with other cultures in their own language, to understand their cultural contexts, and to competently navigate different traditions of various communities.

Georgetown is proud of the high percentage of students who study outside of the US. The report reminds us that those experiences may have greatest impact if they involve immersion in language, culture, and a professional sector relevant to the student’s future life’s activities. Integrating these experiences more fully into one’s curriculum may have benefits.

Georgetown has programs with credit-bearing requirements outside the US, both at the undergraduate and graduate level. We have living-learning communities that foster both culture and language. We have student-run affinity groups that reinforce inter-cultural dialogue. We have faculty whose scholarship (joint with students) is focused on different cultures and their languages. The report reminds us of how important these features of the Georgetown environment will be in the future.

7 thoughts on “Language and Culture

  1. Important points. It would be good to see these priorities reflected in the working conditions of language teachers at Georgetown, who are typically adjunct or non-tenured professors with very heavy teaching loads and little job security.

  2. Thanks for this great commentary, Bob. As I work to protect Title VI, the international title of the higher education act, your arguments are very valuable.

  3. Thank you, Bob, for addressing this critical issue. Section 4 of the AAAS report emphasizes the importance of international study and cultural immersion, and references the fourteen “critical” languages identified by the US Department of State. Georgetown University Press publishes language-learning resources in seven of those critical languages, most notably Arabic, and many of these resources are used in study abroad programs. The Press’s Al-Kitaab multimedia program, for example, is the most widely used Arabic textbook in the world.

  4. Dear Provost,
    thank you so much for circulating this encouraging report! I am sure it will help Georgetown language and humanities departments tremendously

  5. Important points. It would be good to see these priorities reflected in the working conditions of language teachers at Georgetown, who are typically adjunct or non-tenured professors with very heavy teaching loads and little job security.

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