Bush plan to push
foreign language study inadequate
Special to The China Post
January 16, 2006
By Daniel J.
Some of the
hardest but most satisfying days of my life were my first six months in Taiwan,
when I studied Mandarin with a mad passion. Occasionally I unpack some of those
memories and shake my head in wonder that I survived. I remember the frustration
my classmates and I felt when we confronted the most basic of pronunciation
difficulties on the first day in class. I simply could not distinguish the sound
of a "dz" from a "ts," or an "ang" from an "an." And don't even mention the
"yin" and "ying" problem. I am still haunted by those nuances. Although today my
Mandarin is nothing to shout about, I take a measure of pride in my humble
efforts to get better at it.
To truly master a foreign language, a person must think big. It takes a major
commitment and a lot of heart. We all know that. All of us, it seems, except the
President of the United States.
Now, I don't want to be too hard on the man. The president means well. He has
good intentions. Mr. Bush spoke last week of a new program called the National
Security Language Initiative He promised to allot US$114 million in next year's
budget for it. This initiative will fund programs to help students tackle such
languages as Arabic, Farsi, Hindi and, yes, Chinese.
As he made the announcement, the president probably thought he was joking when
he said, "When somebody comes to me and speaks Texan, I know they appreciate the
Texas culture." The Texas culture? And then he dropped the "who" that some of us
pit bull type English teachers would insist our students insert when he added,
"I mean, somebody takes time to figure out how to speak Arabic, it means they're
interested in somebody else's culture." Tough teachers might moan at the use of
"I mean . . . it means" in the same sentence.
I like Mr. Bush's sentiments and am willing to drop my quibble about the "who."
After all, he was speaking English, not writing it.
I have a writing coach who would never, and I mean NEVER let me write English
like that. If I did, my coach, whose surname rhymes with "mean," would blow the
whistle on me until my eardrums burst. One problem, you see, is the use of
"somebody" in a link with "they're." "Somebody" certainly sounds singular to me.
"They" is plural. That is called an agreement error. I know, because I sometimes
goof that way, myself.
As I said, however, the president's words are a fine example of English as many
people speak it.
With some practice, I might be able to learn to speak "Texan," as Mr. Bush put
it, just to show how much I appreciate Texas culture. Oh, oh, what was that?
"Texas" is a noun. I thought adjectives came before nouns. Shouldn't it be
Well, maybe not. After years of frustration, my woebegone writing coach finally
gave up squawking at me every time I wrote "Taiwan students," or "Taiwan
"Joe," I once told him, there are political and personal sensitivities you can
only grasp if you live in a place." I told my friend there are many students
whose faces turn red if someone calls them "Taiwanese." I feel badly about that
fact, but it is just that way.
Will I accomplish anything here today besides poking fun at a leader who has a
reputation for making hamburger out of the English language? I hope the answer
The Bush plan to help American students develop a serious interest in foreign
languages may mean well, but it is ridiculously inadequate.
One of the programs will pay for 300 foreigners to teach "understudied
languages." With 50 states, that means each state gets 6 new teachers. If I were
Candide, I would say, "Gee, that will do a lot." Another program will send 100
teachers overseas to study those languages. That averages two teachers for every
state in the union. Wow.
If I want to get really good at Mandarin one day, I've got to push myself a lot
harder than I do now. And if the Bush administration wants Americans to learn to
appreciate Spain culture, or China culture, or Texas culture (non-standard
usage, my friends) by speaking the languages of those cultures, it must push
itself a lot harder than this.
Father Daniel J. Bauer SVD is a priest and associate professor at Fu Jen
Catholic University, where he is chair of the English Department in the School
of Continuing Education.