Words And Music

By Alaka M. Basu
Saturday, April 8, 2006

Early this year, at a special U.S. University Presidents Summit on International Education, President Bush unveiled the National Security Language Initiative. This is a $114 million grouping of new federal initiatives intended to address the nation's need for foreign-language speakers. The goal is to dramatically increase the number of Americans learning such critical languages as Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi and Farsi.

This project reminds me of a book I read recently, "The Piano Tuner," by Daniel Mason, in which the central character seeks and makes peace in late 19th-century Burma with music instead of guns. I want to believe the language initiative also is at least partly motivated by an interest in more nonviolent tools of negotiation, although I much prefer the word "conversation" to "negotiation."

Negotiation through music is a wonderful idea, but not available to most of us. So, as university teachers and administrators of international studies programs, we are being urged to think about other ways in which higher education can respond to today's global climate. One of the most important challenges, we are told, is the woeful lack of proficient speakers of many of the newly important languages of the world. This is turning out to be a major handicap in the country's ability to develop a globally competent citizenry and workforce. But even more so, it is believed to be compromising "national strategic needs." It's not for nothing that the language initiative is being sponsored by the departments of State and Defense (although the Education Department later jumped in with a fact sheet about the current state of foreign-language training in the United States and what it plans to do about this dismal situation).

At meetings to discuss ways of increasing the numbers of university graduates who acquire more than a working knowledge of these newly important languages (especially what are called the LCTLs, or least commonly taught languages), we talk about all kinds of strategies to achieve this end -- more fellowships for foreign-language learning, more fellowships for travel abroad to hone language skills, training more "heritage speakers" to teach a language, the introduction of foreign languages other than French, Spanish and German at much earlier stages of the education process. We also discuss the matter of increasing and publicizing the returns from foreign-language learning: the tangible returns (more and better-paying job prospects), the intellectual ones (greater ability to understand a foreign culture) and the moral ones (increased ability to do one's patriotic duty).

But we say nothing about the biggest incentive and the biggest return of all: the love affair that can develop between a student of a foreign language and the language itself. If I taught a language, I would begin by evoking the beauty of the very sounds of a particular language. Indeed, listen to the sound of even the name of an unfamiliar language -- Pashtun, Swahili, Zulu, Dogri. Merely saying the names aloud makes one want to know more.

Then think of the meaning of some of the words and phrases in these new languages. Think of the word for dusk in Hindi -- godhuli , which translates literally into "the dust kicked up by cows coming home from pasture."

I speak from experience. My love affair with the English language began many years ago in a small town in India, thanks to a Welsh nun who went beyond the multiplication tables and the habits of termites to teach us to "listen" to the language, to breathe in the sounds and meanings of the words it was made of.

Sister Aquinas's methods were so effective that even today I feel faint as I contemplate the beauty of simple words like "clandestine," "rendering" and "implore." I keep trying to change the course of a conversation to be able to use such words legitimately.

"Clandestine" and "implore" are perfect sounding words. Then there are all the perfect meaning words and phrases of the English language that also make me weak in the knees -- words such as "meander," "wilt" and "epiphany" and phrases such as "liquid eyes" and "straitened circumstances."

I am so susceptible to the charms of the English language that I find it difficult to chastise an erring student who peppers her apology with words like "contrite," "remorseful" and "wretched." Last night, I couldn't even get angry at the shop assistant who served me badly. Why? Because he had said "farewell" rather than "good night" to the customer ahead of me.

By the same token, some newly infatuated expert in Arabic might refuse to help in a cross-examination at Guantanamo, and a handful of freshly minted experts in one language or another might even end up marrying Tajik or Azerbaijani people. But these are risks worth taking in return for a body of experts who have so drenched themselves in the delights of a foreign language that they want to sound indistinguishable from the natives.

The writer is associate professor of sociology and director of the South Asia program at Cornell University.

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