Why We Learn

Russian practiceI recently had the luck to spend time with Russians in town for the week. They were mainly in their 20s and held various government jobs, so when they had a panel discussion for college students, they were eager to learn how Americans engage youth in politics and civil society. The conversation didn’t tend that way, partly because of format, partly because of events in Ukraine, and partly, I suspect, because the Russians seemed to do more to engage youth than we do, though perhaps with more centralized effort than some Americans might prefer.

After the discussion, I spoke with an American student who knew Russian. It turns out, she wasn’t a student but rather a recent graduate with a secretarial gig. When I asked her the job she preferred to have, she replied, “Intelligence analyst.” I felt immediate but familiar disappointment. I’d known people in my Russian classes who wanted the same, and I’d heard and overheard from undergraduates learning Arabic that they did it because they wanted to work for the FBI or US Marshals Service. (The fact that I then watched one such student complete his entire homework using Google Translate did little to increase my enthusiasm for his plan.) The Pew Research Center just announced Millennials are our nation’s most distrustful generation, and I’m sure many Millennials would prefer a better or any job, and I’m sure Otto von Bismarck would laugh at my naïveté, but it seems the primary point of learning foreign languages should not be to protect ourselves from other cultures. Instead, we should learn foreign languages in order to protect other cultures from ourselves, and by extension, to protect ourselves from ourselves—from our ignorance, our solipsism, our hubris.

Many crimes have been perpetrated in the name of self-defense and maybe slightly fewer in the name of doing “what’s best” for others. Seldom, however, can crime arise from an excessive desire to prevent oneself from harming others. To learn a foreign language is not just to learn another way to think; it is to learn that you need other people, intact. You need them to have a mastery you do not. You need them to have a patience for you that you might not always have for yourself. In exchange, if you are to learn, you must not be afraid to speak as well as to listen.

Maybe that recent graduate didn’t originally learn Russian as a means to a particular job. Maybe she learned it and later realized the two most remunerative ways to maintain the skill: security or international trade. I know how that goes. Generalized humanism doesn’t as easily pay the bills, and language disappears quickly when we do not speak. Ask Orwell or Blok or Akhmatova. Or maybe that recent graduate had, in a way, heard from Blok and Akhmatova and wished they had had happier lives than they did. But they are dead, so you’d have to talk to others now. If we learn a language only to protect ourselves from those who use it, we have already lost so much.