in Chile

Larry Summers is Wrong: Why Learning Multiple Languages is So Valuable

Today’s New York Times features a Room for Debate section about the need to learn multiple languages. Six panelists, including author Stacie Berdan, agree that it is crucial to learn more than one language to operate in the new, globalized world.

They all refute an assertion by Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University and former secretary of the Treasury (and a man with a history of making blanket statements), who wrote What You (Really) Need to Know.

 The world is much more open, and events abroad affect the lives of Americans more than ever before. This makes it essential that the educational experience breed cosmopolitanism — that students have international experiences, and classes in the social sciences draw on examples from around the world. It seems logical, too, that more in the way of language study be expected of students. I am not so sure.

English’s emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world, make it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile. While there is no gainsaying the insights that come from mastering a language, it will over time become less essential in doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East. [emphasis mine, read more here]

This strikes me as arrogant and short-sighted. Even if more non-Americans are learning English and Google Translate is getting better, that does not negate the value of learning other languages.

Being able to speak more than one language has had an immeasurable impact on my own life.

I learned Spanish before the age of five, thanks to my wonderful Nana Petra. While my parents were working, she totally spoiled me with home-cooked Mexican meals, lacy white dresses, and games of Lotería. She drilled me on pronunciation (A, E, I, O, U) and taught me nursery rhymes.

This early exposure to Spanish paved the neural pathways in my brain to let me think in more than one language.

I continued to study Spanish all through school and all through college, including a year here in Chile.

When I graduated with a degree in Latin American Studies, I moved to China to teach English at a university near Shanghai. I’d never studied Chinese and never been obsessed with Asian culture, but I was able to quickly pick up the basics of child-like Chinese through conversations with vegetable vendors, security guards, and migrant workers on the train.

Over the next few years, I took many private lessons and small-group classes. Thank you Layla and Xiaofei for helping me elevate my Chinese skills from toddler level to that of a nine-year-old who likes to talk about wind turbine engineers and garbage incinerators. Learning Chinese gave me access to get beyond China’s single story, beyond the world of tour guides and textbooks, to take part in everyday life.

Now back in Chile, I use Chinese less. In the last month I’ve used it twice: at a restaurant and with a new Start-Up Chile entrepreneur from China. But linguistic crossover shapes the way I see the world.

Last week I led an entrepreneurship seminar at Casa de la Mujer, a community center in a poorer neighborhood of Santiago. The last day, fabulous Start-Up Chile video intern Javiera came with me to film the class and interview me and the ladies about our experiences. (The video will be ready soon!)

I talked about the course in English and it was SO HARD!  You might be thinking, but Leslie, you’re AMERICAN. English is your first language. How can it be hard?

Since I taught and thought about the class in Spanish, explaining it in English felt distant, foreign, and even patronizing. I stumbled over words; I felt like English made the distinctions between myself and the ladies too dramatic. In Spanish it felt more communal, more egalitarian, more personal. My testimonial, of how leading discussions with these woman has inspired me as an entrepreneur, flowed with enthusiasm in Spanish, but in English it felt forced, hesitant. Good thing Javiera took lots of footage: there should be at least a few clips in which my English is fluent and confident.

Linguistic crossover has had such a profound impact on my worldview. It has given me a broader understanding of words and grammar, but more importantly the tools to navigate the world with flexibility and empathy.

I truly can’t imagine life in only one tongue. I wish every preschooler could have a multilingual headstart!

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13 Comments

  1. Nice critique! I think learning languages is exceedingly important, and you’re lucky you had the opportunity to get it wired in your brain at such a young age. I, unfortunately, seem to never have gotten the aptitude for languages, but I also haven’t lived abroad as much (perhaps as a consequence of that). I think that to TRULY delve into other communities and cultures, we have to learn languages. If we subsist on English, sure, we can survive, but can we really deeply connect and understand? No, we can only gain the shallowest of experiences and understandings.

  2. Agreed! The opportunity to deeply connect and understand is the most important reason to learn languages. I am so grateful to have had these multilingual opportunities, though I also know that a lot of people have several languages within their own families, which makes exposure to many languages at a young age so much easier. I know a Chilean couple with two adorable little kids. The dad (who grew up in England) always speaks English to the kids, and the mom speaks Spanish. His daughter started to speak at around two and a half, which is slightly older than most kids raised in only one language, but now she says, “Daddy, book!” and “Gracias mama.” Very cute!

  3. Sorry, but I’m late to this party…I just discovered this site today! Great writing, btw…

    I think you’re both right. Just like everything in life, context is necessary. I believe that there are too many things to master in life; the list is endless. You have to concentrate on what you do well, or better said, on what you do easily. If you have the ability to learn languages quickly, and obviously you do, then you should learn as many as you can. I speak 3 languages myself, but I am a product of pure luck. I don’t have the predeisposition to learn languages, and I struggle still with Spanish and French. Thankfully, when it comes to business, most people have related to me in English since I usually represented international companies.

    All bets are off if you decide to live somewhere and earn your keep in said country. Just as you say, one comes off arrogant and condescending if you insist others speak english on their home turf…

    Great stuff, looking forward to future posts…

  4. I’m trying my best to study español. My Chinese is definitely better than you, but your English and español better. I need to study fourth, fifth … languages

  5. After my deliberation, I think whether learning multiple languages is much valuable is related to what kinds of languages are learned. Chinese and English are totally different languages. There are quite different cultures between people speaking Chinese and people speaking English. There are also different cultures between people speaking Spanish and people speaking English. However, suppose a person who can speak Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, I don’t think that is as valuable as if he can speak English, Spanish and Chinese.

  6. Leslie, have you read William V. Spanos’s The End of Education: Toward Post-Humanism? Summers’ view is precisely what Spanos critiques when writing about the Harvard Core Curriculum debate in the 60s, and the “centered circle” thinking behind the humanist Presidents of Harvard during that time-frame. Specifically, he points to speeches by Harvard presidents at the time who were writing something not dissimilar to Summers’ comments: essentially that the ‘barbarians’ of the rest of the world needed to be civilized by educating them, and that such education needed to be through the English language as the proper medium. It seems that Summers is just following in a long line of hard-core humanists at Harvard who support American (Anglo) cultural hegemony, which is not much better than the Neo-Conservative support of military hegemony.

  7. @Gonzalo. So nice to meet you. Thanks for your kind words.

    You make a good point! Everyone is more successful when focusing on lifelong strengths rather than making up for weaknesses. When representing a foreign company, speaking in English sets the tone and often connects you with the higher level people and that is really what you need.

  8. @Mr. Sun – Yes, I studied Portuguese for a little while before moving to China and I think studying Chinese stretched my brain a lot more than continuing with Portuguese. I had to learn new ways of thinking about questions, descriptions, and relationships between things to speak even super basic Chinese, and I think it has been a good exercise for my brain.

    How are your Spanish classes going? Any plans to visit Chile? Mi casa es tu casa!

  9. @Skinner. I’ve never heard of this philosophy, but it makes perfect sense to me. I have also heard people argue that English is the language of problem solving. I think English is the language of the most sophisticated and powerful international conversations, but that fact doesn’t mean that learning other languages is less valuable.

    I look forward to meeting you in person soon!

  10. Hi Leslie,
    When I was a kid I learned Italian from my great grandmother. My brother and I would have conversations in Italian. It has helped me to learn other languages like Spanish, french and Tagalog.

  11. Hi Justin,

    Thanks so much for your comment. I love how learning more than one language at a young age opens the neurological gateways that enable us to learn more. If and when I have kids of my own I will make sure they have this opportunity.

    I’ve only learned a few words in Tagalog but I think it’s fascinating how it includes Spanish words like despedida — a linguistic remnant of colonialism.

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