Oct. 24, 2007

Why won't the Americans teach their children how to speak French, Spanish and German, asks European linguist

Europeans fail to grasp -- in many instances actively resist -- the American "melting pot" concept, according to a Dutch linguist and honorary European Union senator.

On the other hand, Europeans take for granted the necessity of speaking at least one language other than one's own, he said.

In the United States, insistence on English as the national tongue diminishes emphasis on learning languages other than English, asserted Ludo Beheydt, professor of Dutch language and civilization at the Université catholique de Louvain, speaking on campus Oct. 12 in a seminar, "Europe's Less Commonly Taught Languages: Endangered Species?"

"This is strange for a country that has so many foreign economic interests, that should be fostering foreign language knowledge," he said.

The American tendency not to learn and become fluent in foreign languages, Beheydt said, "is all missed opportunities, economic and intercultural. I see this from a European perspective: Speaking different languages is building bridges to other cultures."

To run the polyglot EU requires copious translation and causes other bureaucratic obstacles to sustain multilingual communication. Beheydt thinks it is worth the effort and expense.

"In Europe today, speaking your own language makes communications a bit difficult," he said. "But the cost is far less than the cost of waging war because of misunderstanding, because of not having cultural competence, because of not taking in the perspective of the other."

A key component for Europe's successful absorption of large numbers of immigrants, Beheydt said, is cultural understanding gained in part through knowledge of language. "Learning foreign languages implies getting into the mind of another, taking his point of view. If we want people to feel at home in Europe, we must first recognize their culture and their language."

France and the Netherlands' "no" vote on the European constitution was backlash against an EU governmental/cultural monolith, he said. Some languages, like Catalan and Welsh, were perceived as receiving disproportionate EU attention.

"Europe is based on the 19th-century idea of nation: having a language and having a law," Beheydt said. "Today laws are shared; half of [the Netherlands] is governed by European laws."

The need to learn languages never ends, Beheydt said. "Some of the big countries that have become EU members are still based on one language, like Poland. The French believe they speak the classical language of Europe. Giving that up is impossible. Can you imagine the laws that won't be understood?"

The event was sponsored by the Institute for European Studies, the Delegation of the European Commission to the United States, the Cornell Language Resource Center and the German Studies Department.

Sophie Huntington, outreach coordinator at the Einaudi Center, contributed to this story.