Editor’s Note: For another viewpoint, see POINT: Foreign Language Study Is Desirable, but Not Essential.
On a fall day in 1974, I walked into a Russian language course at Hunter College, one of the Manhattan campuses of the public City University of New York system.
In New York for back-to-back college internships at the Paris Review literary magazine and The New York Times, I chose Hunter because it offered evening classes.
As editor of my high school newspaper outside Detroit, I’d had a strong interest in current events, and no ongoing story at the time was bigger or more consequential than the global superpower rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.
But what brought me to that nighttime class at Hunter was less weighty: I’d just read Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” So brilliant was his monumental novel about a misguided young man who becomes a murderer, I vowed to someday read it in Russian.
Little did I know then that the decision to master Russian would lead, 15 years later, to my assignment as a Moscow correspondent covering the collapse of the Soviet Union. By then, I was fluent enough to conduct interviews with Russians in their native tongue. Soon after my arrival, the Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov died. He’d become the most prominent anti-Communist dissident, as famous for his political activism as for his science. His death caused an outpouring of grief across the vast country, and the line to view his open casket stretched for miles. Thousands of Muscovites waited in line for hours in the bitter winter cold to pay their last respects.
Other foreign correspondents walked the line with their translators to interview the mourners while I was able to speak with them alone.
Did it make a difference? The Russians I interviewed were touched that we could talk in their own language. More important, the translators who worked for foreign bureaus were known to be spies, using the coveted posts to file reports to the KGB about international journalists’ sources and subject matters. It was clear to me that the Sakharov mourners I interviewed felt more at ease and were more willing to share their true feelings about him. Many wept as they spoke.
One of the sad ironies of our current era is that at a time when the United States is becoming more diverse and globalization is outsourcing more American jobs, fewer young people are studying foreign languages.
Among the nation’s top 10 universities, according to U.S. News & World Report, only Columbia University requires foreign-language study (three years) for admission. My alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley, is one of a shrinking number of other elite schools to require it.
And once in college, fewer students are required to show even basic proficiency in a foreign language in order to graduate. Only 12 percent of institutions of higher learning retain such a mandate, according to a survey last year by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
My experience with Russian shows how acquiring skills at a young age can pay unforeseen benefits down the road as the winding, surprising path of life takes us on its mysterious journey.
There are other reasons to study a foreign language. By the time I started with Russian, I’d taken four years of Spanish classes at my high school — a requirement it would later shed. And I would take an intensive German course while spending a year abroad in Munich.
In ways I didn’t fully appreciate at the time, grappling with other tongues made me a better writer in my own tongue. The grammatical thorns of English were less prickly after I’d struggled to learn the six cases in Russian and the four cases in German, which change words’ forms to show their functions in sentences. Those experiences, too, enhanced my subsequent career as a journalist and book author.
You might not become a reporter and a writer as I did. Instead, you might become an international lawyer specializing in Chinese investment in the United States, a hot job source these days. You might become a chef or restaurateur deciphering French recipes. You might become an automobile engineer working for Volvo or BMW or Toyota. You might become a missionary spreading the word in Brazil or India or Congo. You might find yourself living in a demographically diverse community surrounded by neighbors speaking in a dozen tongues.
If you think these scenarios are unlikely, you simply haven’t lived long enough to understand the twists and turns of life.