Editorial: Foreign languages have something to offer

Editorial Board

When did awareness of other cultures become such an awful character trait? This campaign season, one candidate’s ability to speak another language is another’s weapon against him. Both of the moderates in the race, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, have been attacked for their ability to communicate and interact with foreigners.

One ad against Huntsman before the New Hampshire primary suggested his values may be less than American because of his ability to speak Chinese, and a recent Newt Gingrich ad against Mitt Romney connected him to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., on the basis of their ability to speak French.

Are we really so afraid of everything not “American” (whatever that means) that now we campaign on a candidate’s ability to speak a second language? All across the country, we hold that multilingualism is a valuable asset. It is a part of our history. President Thomas Jefferson and hundreds of other diplomats knew foreign languages, especially French. Until very recently, French was considered a diplomatically essential language.

Conservatives learn foreign languages to get a job or a pay raise; liberals do so to enrich their understanding of the world. Colleges award certain degrees on whether students have completed a certain amount of foreign language, and many colleges require some knowledge of a foreign language for admission. 

Studying abroad is often thought of as an important part of a rounded education. Centuries ago, a tour abroad was the finishing touch on any young gentleman’s education. Peace Corps and military veterans often speak of their time serving abroad as highly valuable. The focus of church and charity mission trips is often overseas.

Speaking French or Chinese to a French or Chinese audience — as Romney did for French audiences during the Olympics, where French is an official language, and Huntsman did so in China, where he served as ambassador — shows a person’s ability to blend with his or her surroundings instead of traipsing into other places and expecting the residents to conform to his expectations.

Imagine a historian of French history who knows no French, a scientist working in Russia who knows no Russian or an architect working in Rome who knows no Italian. You wouldn’t expect that person to be very effective, would you?

One of the presidential campaign’s recurring themes this year has been making the United States a great country again. That requires a world presence and cooperation with other countries. English doesn’t have all the answers. To say that America is the only culture worth knowing about is to be unfathomably conceited.

When in Rome, do as the Romans. But if you know nothing of Roman culture or language, how will you accomplish that?