Bush plan to push foreign language study inadequate
Special to The China Post
January 16, 2006

By Daniel J. Bauer,

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 "Texan culture?"

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 universities."

"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 is "yes."

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.