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Looking Beyond the Emphasis on Western Civilization

February 27, 1988

Dartmouth President Freedman's remarks remind us once again of the naivete and ignorance that has overrun vast areas of American academia. Especially distressing, although comical, are his delirious observations on language.

He exhumes the discredited and baseless notion that "One of the United States' most distressing deficiencies is our growing inability to communicate with other nations because we lack proficiency in their languages." What in heaven's name ever gave him that idea? The fact is Americans (and Britons and Australians and Jamaicans and lots of other Anglophone nations) are having a much easier time communicating with other nations than ever before--because English has become the common language of the world.

People are studying English the world over not, as Freedman thinks, to better understand our "culture" or to be able to tap into American markets, but in order to communicate with the world at large and, in many cases, in order to be able to talk to millions of their own countrymen.

In Singapore, where English is required stuff for all students, English is spoken by the Malays to the Tamils and by the Tamils to the Indians and by the Chinese to all three others and to many of their fellow ethnic Chinese. Indeed, on mainland China only the written ideogramic language is commonly understood. The spoken tongue ranges through a huge number of dialects, each almost unintelligible to speakers of the next. So they all study English.

Freedman wants us all to study Russian or Chinese or whatever to gain an "understanding of other cultural traditions. . . ." This is fatuous on its face. My working knowledge of French has never given me the slightest insight on the curious workings of the Cartesian mind. His idea that language is informed with some deep cultural underpinnings is flapdoodle.

Russian and Chinese (Mandarin or otherwise) and French might be exciting and enriching subjects of study and fun to use, but I don't know how they'll play in Kuala Lumpur or Tokyo or Bombay or Melbourne or Zurich. Everyone else but Freedman, perhaps, has guessed the answer.

ROBERT HOFFMAN

Hermosa Beach

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