This summer, as part of the National Strategic Language Initiative with the U.S. Department of State, I will be heading to the Moscow Institute of Social and Economic Sciences to study Russian. A truly globally literate student body must have other resources and experiences to draw on to be prepared for a more dynamic and connected world. It has become ever more clear to me that a smaller and more interconnected world will require an increased sensitivity to the needs and aspirations of other nations and people around the world, even within our own country.
According to a 2014 study by researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Houston, being bilingual or multilingual enhances the ability to problem-solve, and even improves our understanding of our own English language. Given that many English words are in fact borrowed from other languages, a deeper understanding of them helps us better understand the context and meaning behind our own words.
An understanding of the political and cultural dynamics of America’s partners and rivals on the part of our generation will serve to ensure greater collaboration across the world. If we have learned any lesson from the past century, it is that closing doors, isolationism, and ignorance will exacerbate tendencies in human nature to reciprocate bad behavior and stymie liberalization and progress. It’s also important to recognize how languages will be critical in the globalized world of tomorrow. The emergence of a unified worldwide market is an unstoppable trend that will result in a greater need for international cooperation, both in business and in politics. In a world where a computer is designed in France and the Silicon Valley, made from metal mined in the Congo, forged from the hard labor of Chinese factory workers, shipped through Hong Kong and Singapore, and sold at a department store in Moscow, it is imperative that students get the skills necessary to interact with actors across the international supply chain.
While PHS’s foreign language teachers do a great job working towards these goals, there are clear areas for improvement. Russian, German, and Hindi, languages that are clearly going to be dominant on the world stage in the coming century, have been neglected. Furthermore, from my own experience, foreign language classes at PHS have lacked that connection to real-world events and issues that is the crux of the argument underlying their importance. If we truly want students to be engaged in the study of foreign peoples, languages, and cultures, teachers should bring the language to life in the context of the countries and histories of the language studied, and drop dull textbook practice worksheets.
However, that’s not to say PHS’s programs are lagging behind relative to the rest of the nation. PHS’s international engagement is far more robust and expansive than that of other schools, in large part due to the actions of the administration and in virtue of our diverse Princeton community. Working even further in this direction will be sure to improve outcomes for all our students, regardless of their path in life, and strengthen the fiber of our nation. If we fail at this goal more broadly, we leave ourselves vulnerable to preventable mistakes.