Despite all the talk on both sides of the Atlantic promoting multilingualism for job mobility and economic opportunity, many colleges and universities have eliminated foreign language requirements for graduation and have cut foreign language departments to a bare minimum.
And while many students pursue language courses as an adjunct to study abroad, the rapid increase in English-medium classes and entire programmes, especially in Western Europe, undercuts that incentive except for those seeking English competency. In any case, far fewer students are completing degrees in foreign languages, consequently producing fewer teachers and professors to help turn the situation around.
The problem is most acute in Anglophone countries where the rise of English as the lingua franca of knowledge, commerce, science and diplomacy reinforces an age-old and misguided sense of complacency.
If the world is speaking English, then why should anyone waste time, energy and resources learning other languages? Or so the argument goes.
Yet even setting aside career and business interests, English is not enough in today’s volatile geopolitics, as the recent terrorist attacks in Paris all too subtly revealed.
In the days following the attacks, the English language media struggled to explain the apparent cultural divide on religion and free speech that sets France apart from other liberal democracies, including the United States.
Looking at it from the American side, less apparent was the linguistic divide which prevented most Americans from fully comprehending those cultural differences. As print and broadcast news projected the events largely through an American lens, they glided over important nuances of what France and its increasingly diverse people were experiencing, leaving Americans perplexed and somewhat dismissive at best.
Something was getting lost in translation.
Many Americans and others questioned how the French could support cartoons that offend religious believers and provoke criminal acts while making ‘hate speech’ a criminal offence. In the US, both expressions would enjoy protection unless they were intended to provoke imminent lawless action and actually did so.
Some found it disrespectful and distasteful to depict religious figures as objects of humour. Though church-state separation, like freedom of expression, is carved into the nation’s Constitution, Americans also hold religious beliefs in high regard.
Even some free speech advocates considered the cover of Charlie Hebdo’s post-attack issue depicting the Prophet Muhammad holding a placard saying “Je suis Charlie” to be dangerously inflammatory. Some American newspapers, including those with a liberal slant, refrained from printing the cover for reasons of public safety and religious sensitivity.
The cultural gap grew wider as the police detained the comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala for a Facebook posting allegedly condoning terrorism.
Known for his popularised gesture resembling a Nazi salute, and repeatedly arrested for statements targeting Jews, the comedian was charged with showing sympathy towards the gunman accused of killing four individuals at a kosher supermarket the preceding Friday.
Dieudonné was not alone. In the days following the attacks, prosecutors throughout France, under government orders to crack down on hate speech, anti-semitism and those who extol terrorism, arrested 54 individuals and opened dozens of investigations.
A similar scenario would not occur in the US where the government cannot ban speech simply because it dislikes the ideas expressed or because those ideas offend peoples’ sensibilities. Nor can the government constitutionally prohibit speech that insults or shows contempt for religion or religious figures, what is commonly called ‘blasphemy’.
American law is consistent on that score. That being said, Americans speak of certain forms of expression as being ‘blasphemous’ while ‘hate speech’ is widely denounced for running counter to equal dignity implicit in equal citizenship.
And so while the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and Dieudonné’s ranting might be legal, many Americans would culturally recoil from both.
In France, the very idea of blasphemy does not exist. France is a secular society where religion is removed from public life and, as the Charlie Hebdo journalists explained, rests on the same plane as any other ‘ideology’. Moreover, the French have a long tradition of political satire and caricature, with anti-clerical roots.
French laws banning hate speech, nevertheless, are quite strict. They make it a crime to engage in any communication that incites discrimination, hatred or violence against a person or group on account of place of origin, ethnicity, nationality, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation or handicap.
France also prohibits Holocaust denial, given the country’s dark history of deportations in World War II. And so for the French, Dieudonné incites hate against the Jews; Charlie Hebdo uses comic exaggeration that makes people reflect on the absurdity of ideas, including religious ones, and those associated with them.
With these events unfolding at a dizzying pace, I found myself riveted to the internet, listening to French government officials, news commentators, the intellectual elite and the public at large weigh in on a spectrum of issues. They all confirmed how the seeming paradoxes in French law lie at the very core of what it means to be French.
In contrast to American reporting which centred on free speech and religion, public discussion in France inevitably set upon the uniquely French concept of laïcité, a comprehensive secular view that drives all aspects of republican life though, as some rightly argue, demands rethinking in the face of religious pluralism.
With the prime suspects being French-born citizens, talk also turned to the widespread disaffection among Muslim youth, some of whom refused to participate in the national moment of silence mourning the victims.
The national minister of education, a French-Moroccan herself, took the reins on immediate government action. Announcing for the coming school year a new programme of moral and civic instruction, she too repeatedly invoked both laïcité and the role of schooling as the front line in creating French citizens and inculcating fundamental republican values.
Pressed to explain the French mindset to family, friends and the press, I realised that having familiarity with French history and culture, and direct access to the French media, had given me insights into subtleties and complexities that were beyond the reach of most Americans.
A working knowledge of French was essential to tapping into those media sources. To not tap into them, however, led to reflexively critical conclusions about French society.
Hearing American journalists and political pundits deconstruct the underlying issues was one thing. Hearing the French explain and defend their deepest convictions was quite another, even if one sharply disagreed with the underlying principles or policy outcomes. At the very least it gave grounding for a more informed response to the problems now confronting France’s criminal, educational and social welfare institutions in the wake of these recent events.
As debate on free speech and the press slowly recedes for now, and France’s (and Europe’s) ‘Muslim question’ takes centre stage, these observations give rise to a less obvious though consequential point on language and cultural competence.
Defining moments, like the attacks in Paris, should remind us that language is key to gaining an insider’s view and a sense of the ‘big picture’, which by the way also allows us to critically examine ourselves. Print and broadcast media, as well as the global blogosphere, still speak in many voices and worldviews and they are powerful shapers of ideas and opinions.
Though multilingualism is clearly important in the global economy, we should not underestimate the force of language and intercultural awareness in promoting global understanding and security.
Today it’s French. Tomorrow it could be Spanish, Chinese, Farsi or any other language depending on the vagaries of world events. With terrorism unwittingly binding the free world together, linguistic skills and the cultural doors they open are essential to both digging deep into differences, especially among our enemies, while finding common ground for mutual respect and joint action among present and potential allies.
The success of those efforts depends on many variables. Yet one thing is clear. If policy-makers and educators continue to give mere lip service to the foreign language deficit while English rapidly sweeps the globe, they disserve the interests of their own countries.
In the end, those looking to upend our democratic values and open societies will understand us far better than we understand them. And in the next ‘defining moment’ the stakes conceivably could run much higher, and the consequences could spread far wider.
Rosemary Salomone is the Kenneth Wang Professor of Law at St John’s University School of Law in the United States. Her most recent book is True American: Language, identity, and the education of immigrant children. Harvard University Press. She is currently writing a book on global English.