Chapter 10: Tongues and Areas
Is a Frenchman a man?
Well, den! Dad blame it, why doan’ he talk like a man? You answer me dat!
JIM AND HUCKLEBERRY FINN
Shortly before setting foot in the United States, I tried to learn something about the country from an old guidebook which had been around the house for years. With my imperfect command of the language, one sentence near the beginning, I remember, filled me with apprehension:
The European tongues are taught in the high schools all over the country, but the instruction is purely theoretical, and the number who can talk French, German, or Italian is very small. Tourists who wish to travel among the remoter districts of New England should be well acquainted with the language, which is the English of Elizabeth with a few local idioms. 
Having no idea whether I should be called upon to travel in the “remoter districts of New England,” much less what was meant by the “English of Elizabeth,” I pinned all my faith on this “theoretical instruction” of American youth in European tongues. I now know what it means It means that boys and girls “take” French or Spanish or German (never Italian: the guidebook is wrong) for three, four, or five years before entering college, only to discover there that they cannot read, speak, or understand it. The word for this type of instruction is not “theoretical” but “hypothetical.” Its principle is “If it were possible to learn a foreign language in the way I have been taught it, I should now know that language.”
Various things follow. One is that Berlitz Schools do a thriving business with people who are suddenly confronted with the need to travel abroad. Another is that there is a lifelong Sehnsucht about foreign tongues, which quack advertisements seek to satisfy: “Astonish your friends by speaking to the waiter in French.” A third is that advanced college teaching and graduate study are hampered at every turn by the students’ inability to pick up and read important foreign works. Every year in my senior and graduate classes, I ask those present to write after their names on the class list the languages that they know. Most of them put down French or German or both. But when they come to choose research topics and I suggest a foreign item for their bibliography, they retract their “knowledge” with an embarrassed smile. Some of these students are at the very time “taking” the language in college and some have passed the so-called proficiency test.
There are exceptions to this generality, but most often the exceptional student turns out to have lived abroad or had relatives who speak the tongue in question. When the Army, the Navy, and the civilian war services needed native-born linguists who were also college graduates in the prime of life, they discovered that they had to set up their own language schools and cram German, Russian, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, and French into people whose previous immunity to language seemed absolute. They could “take” it forever; it wouldn’t “take.”
Everybody knows the outcome: they’re all linguists now. My students send me Christmas cards in Japanese, or inform me that when they return they plan to study under my sponsorship the relations of the Third French Republic and the Tsarist regime. I see very clearly that I am going to have to learn Russian.
Characteristically, college administrators have jumped to the conclusion that the Army must have some secret “method”—held back until M-day—which the colleges ought to find out and apply. Campuses buzz with the spirit of reform, the language departments themselves being divided between the Old Guard, which defends its former “methods,” and the New, whose proposals combine elements of the army training with Area studies. I shall explain what these are in a moment.
Meanwhile, the Army and Navy’s victorious inoculation of the antilinguistic American boy is not hard to account for. It was not a secret; it was mainly Concentration. The men were segregated, put in charge of foreign instructors, drilled morning, noon, and night under conditions of prisonlike rigidity. Standards were high and failures from laziness or incapacity were weeded out as fast as they shoed up. A competitive game was set going, which keyed up the good minds to outdo themselves. Outside the class hours, the men would quiz each other, talk, joke, and write in the language they were learning. Two powerful motives were at work: the negative fear of not keeping up and therefore being returned to the ranks, and the positive wish for a commission and the pay that goes with it.
Clearly if these or similar motives could be brought into play in high school or college, language teaching—or for that matter the teaching of any subject—would yield astonishing results. If I did not mention as an incentive the very real desire to discharge a patriotic duty, it is because that motive already finds a parallel in the civilian’s academic career. The man with the moral fervor of patriotism is likely to be the man with the moral fervor of scholarship; in both cases, the student sees himself as owing a duty to something greater than himself. This kind of ambition no system can demand; it can only use it when found.
1 New England: A Handbook for Travellers (Boston: James R. Osgood, 1873).
Teacher in America by Jacques Barzun
Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1981
first published: 1944