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Learning Other Languages

The Bible is full of interesting stories. One begins in Daniel 1:3-5 where the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar has just captured Jerusalem. First he plunders the city and then he issues a command. He orders that a group of young, intelligent Jewish noblemen be taken off to Babylon (today's Iraq) for one express purpose: to learn the language and the literature of the Babylonians.

Nebuchadnezzar took Daniel and his friends to Babylon because he wanted the Jews to know their conquerors. Thousands of years ago, this king understood a fundamental principle--it is impossible to understand or to penetrate a culture without learning the language of that culture. Language is the purest expression of a people's culture, the key that can open all the other cultural doors.

It is equally noteworthy that, although handpicked for their ability to learn, the young Jewish nobles were still required to study the language full-time for three years before entering the king's service. The ancient Babylonians knew that even for the best minds under the best conditions, language learning was a long and demanding task.

We don't know the methods those Babylonians used to teach their language and literature. But it is clear they taught all four skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. We don't know how fluent Daniel eventually became in his second language, but I personally imagine he was rather like Henry Kissinger--an eloquent speaker and writer, yet one who always had a slight yet distinctly foreign accent.

Assuming the American educational system is only half as efficient and intensive as that in ancient Babylon, American children should study a foreign language for an uninterrupted six years, beginning in the seventh (or preferably sixth) grade. Small schools in small towns should at the least require Spanish, since even they will be able to find Spanish teachers readily. Those in larger cities and those in magnet schools should have a wider range of choices, including Arabic, Chinese, and Russian.

I am convinced that only when Americans as a whole become more sophisticated in their knowledge of other countries, languages, and cultures will American foreign policy begin to avoid the catastrophic errors into which it so clumsily falls. Like Daniel, young Americans need to be trained for leadership in a diverse world. They need to understand their enemies as well as their friends, and understanding, Nebuchadnezzar knew, begins with learning language and literature.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on August 9, 2007 10:42 AM.

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