The Department of Defense (DoD) and Government Accountability Office (GAO), among other agencies, have reported an ongoing shortage in staff with the foreign-language skills necessary to conduct intelligence, security, and diplomatic functions in the post-9/11 world. According to the DOD 2005 “Defense Language Transformation Roadmap,” “Language skill and regional expertise have not been regarded as war-fighting skills, and are not sufficiently incorporated into operational or contingency planning… Language skill and regional expertise are not valued as Defense core competencies yet they are as important as critical weapon systems.”
Professor Scott Wible, an English professor at West Virginia University, criticized the DoD for its use of militaristic analogies when referring to the vital role language proficiency plays in promoting national security. “Such ideas send a message that we use these foreign languages to wage war; we speak them as means to know our enemies and to eliminate them,” he told a Modern Language Association (MLA) audience last December. “The discursive practice of labeling linguistic otherness reflects a desire to gain and wield power through language, and encourages students to see language learning as a means for acquiring cultural and linguistic mastery over other groups,” Wible continued. He argues that such hegemonic linguistic attitudes actually foster global conflict.
The MLA continues to push for greater “translingual and transcultural competence” among college students, which it believes will enhance not only students’ language skills, but their capacity for global citizenship. Not surprisingly, the MLA ad hoc Committee on Foreign Languages (MLACFL) 2007 report included statements by Daniel Yankelovich and Senator Daniel Akaka (D-HI). “Our whole culture,” they quote Yankelovich as saying, “must become less ethnocentric, less patronizing, less ignorant of others, less Manichaean in judging other cultures, and more at home with the rest of the world. Higher education can do a lot to meet that important challenge.”
Notably, the committee omits Yankelovich’s previous two sentences, in which he writes, “It’s not that educated Americans must become cultural experts. That is neither practical nor desirable: Experts cannot meet the threat.” In his article, “Ferment and Change: Education in 2015,” Yankelovich goes on to assert that “Without the kind of broad-based understanding that only higher education can provide, this nation will suffer crippling setbacks in the culture wars with Islam and other parts of the world. Cultural isolation and ignorance will inevitably undermine our efforts at world leadership.”
Another quoted figure, Senator Akaka, is well-known among conservative circles for his Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act. “[The proposed] ‘Native Hawaiian Government’ could allegedly exempt these Hawaiians from whatever aspects of the United States Constitution and state authority it thought undesirable. Not only is this a terrible idea; it is also unconstitutional,” assert Heritage Foundation analysts Edwin Meese, III, and Todd Gazanio. According to Washington Post columnist George Will, the bill would “foment racial disharmony by creating a permanent case entitled to its own government—the Native Hawaiian Governing Entity—within the United States.” In his November 2007 article, Will characterizes the legislation as “a genuflection by ‘progressives,’ mostly Democrats, to ‘diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism.’”
MLA leaders seem similarly inclined toward such a gesture, especially since their proposed language reform would elevate the importance of literary and interdisciplinary studies during early college-level language education, providing an integrated approach with a “broader and more coherent curriculum in which language, culture, and literature are taught as a continuous whole.” “In addition to learning the history and underlying structure of a particular language, students should be offered the opportunity to take general courses in such areas as language and cognition, language and power, bilingualism, language and identity, language and gender, language and myth, language and artificial intelligence, and language and the imagination,” recommends the MLACFL (emphasis added). In other words, students would learn foreign languages in tandem with gender studies, queer theory, race theory, marxist values, and other politicized forms of literary criticism.
According to the MLACFL, a mere “instrumental” approach to language education is inadequate. Conversely, their reformed curriculum would systematically teach “differences in meaning, mentality, and worldview as expressed in American English and in the target language…In the course of acquiring functional language abilities, students are taught critical language awareness, interpretation and translation, historical and political consciousness, social sensibility, and aesthetic perception” at the early learning levels. These reorganized language studies are proposed as an antidote to the “Manichean” tendencies of U.S. culture described by Yankelovich. Under the twin goals of “translingual” and “transcultural competence,” students would also be “trained to reflect on the world and themselves through the lens of another language and culture. They learn to comprehend speakers of the target language as members of foreign societies and to grasp themselves as Americans—that is, as members of a society that is foreign to others,” writes the committee.
“I believe rhetoric composition scholars are well-positioned to collaborate with colleagues in the modern languages to work towards creating a rhetorical education for global citizenship,” Wible told his MLA audience. He added “And in fact, the MLA ad hoc committee recommends that scholars in foreign languages work with scholars in other disciplines to teach interdisciplinary courses…exploring this very subject…along with credit-bearing discussion models that our department likes” (emphasis added).