This is a very tough post to write, because I have to confront a collision of legitimate values I hold strongly.  I just received an invitation to sign the petition here. I am not going to sign, even though I am the world’s biggest fan of learning languages. I regret that among the six with which I have some competence, none is really foreign (to me, that is, non-Indo-European). I think real command of at least one foreign language, meaning conversational comfort, writing a business letter, and reading a novel, not passing a written exam, should be a graduation requirement at any college that respects the idea of a liberal education. Requirement, period. I deplore the feeble command my students have of languages they have studied for two and three semesters in courses.  And by the way, every new language is easier than the one before.

This is all important for many familiar reasons. First, on the principle that, if you didn’t have an environment you couldn’t have a self, and without a background a figure is impossible, you don’t know your own language until you learn another and see how it could be different, and what matters about the way it is. Second, it’s a big world out there and travel is enormously enriched if you can talk to people.  Third, there’s good stuff to read, and song lyrics to understand, that aren’t translated yet. Granted, if you’re going to know only one language, being a native English speaker is an enormous piece of good fortune, and English will take you around more places and let you read more stuff than any other. But a second language is a cave of wonders and treasure, and a doorway to priceless experiences.

However, taking a course in a classroom is about the last way I would go about learning a new language; it’s impossibly slow, and you don’t get to talk enough.  Get a grammar and a dictionary and some audio tapes, and just sit down and do it; start reading fiction as soon as you can, and try to find a native or expert speaker to talk with when you’ve made some headway: vacation dans le pays and force yourself to speak *. You do have to believe you can do this, and Americans broadly lack this confidence, but that learned helplessness cripples them in classroom language instruction as well.

As regards the petition, I should be careful to distinguish learning a language from studying its literature or learning the discipline of linguistics. I will now go out on a limb and claim that academic credit should not be given for language courses, though if high school has failed, the college should do everything it can to help students pass my graduation requirement.  Speaking a language is not an intellectual skill comparable to what one learns in courses like Victorian British Literature, Physics of the Solid State, Complex Function Theory, Late Medieval France, and like that. My main evidence is that six-year-olds readily prattle in one or even two languages (if lucky enough to have a bilingual family), and six-year-olds are not college material.

What language professors study and teach–linguistics, literature, phonetics, language history–is totally in the appropriate orbit of a liberal arts university, so I’m opposed to just whacking away at these departments.  The serious mismatch between PhD generation and suitable job opportunities throughout the humanities, aggravated by faculty habituation to a cheap research assistant labor force, is a larger problem and needs to be  worked out on another battlefield.

My main problem here is captured in a conversation I had a few years ago with a Romance language prof here.

Me: Hey, have you guys ever evaluated some of the online and computer-based language courses like Babel, Rosetta Stone, Living Language…?

He: We need those teaching jobs for our graduate students. 

I was, naïvely, shocked; I thought the point of language courses was for students to learn languages, and if there’s a better way than our hoary habits, obviously (i) we have a duty to find out what it is and (ii) use it.  Deliberate ignorance about learning technologies, in order to support graduate students or for any other reason, is abusive of the undergraduates who should be learning as much as they possibly can in every hour, by whatever method works best. I’m a pretty good lecturer, and the ego boost of having a roomful of students write down everything I said was a real trip, but the science is in about telling content live in front of a blackboard or powerpoints (it has very poor learning outcomes), so I had to stop and adopt other ways to teach that work better.

I’ll sign a petition to protect the humanities against nitwit, philistine costcutting. When we do the appropriate research, if we find sit-down classes build the most functional language skill per student hour (I doubt it, but I will yield to real evidence) I’ll sign one like this.  But in current circumstances, this feels too much like special pleading for leaf-raking employment. Dear colleagues: please do the research I asked my colleague about, and use what you learn. However it comes out, it will greatly raise your standing to claim society’s resources, and I will be able to support your demands.


*I have to mention Bob Frank’s brilliant trick for this: memorize and rehearse some jokes. Having foreigners laugh at something you’ve just said in their language is immensely reinforcing, and because you know where you’re going when you start, your stage fright is greatly reduced.



Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

20 thoughts on “Languages”

  1. Thanks. Yes.

    Having taught French in high school decades ago, I agree. Most of my students sought a credential — for college admission — rather than language learning itself.

    But if classroom teaching persists, I would have wanted better teachers than I was. By that I mean native speakers of the target language.

  2. The better is always the enemy of the so-so. But in a world where the so-so is under attack for existing at all, I have to wonder about the efficacy of using the better as an argument for not supporting it.

    Structurally speaking, if we're going to use software to teach basic foreign-language skills (which may or may not be more effective than having grad students do it), what *are* we going to do to support those grad students, and how are they going to learn teaching skills?

  3. The State Department has an interesting scale of language competence. The penultimate step is IIRC being able to conduct a diplomatic conversation with your native-speaker counterpart, with full attention to and control of nuances. The highest level is similar control in a situation of high stress, such as coming under armed attack. Before Gulf War II, they had more or less nobody in the area with that level of Arabic.

    Dunning-Kruger applies to language competence. We have all met restaurant menus translated by overconfident people. I used to work for an international organisation with very high standards in languages. I've written and delivered speeches to demanding audiences in French and German. But we still had a rule that every publication had to be reviewed by a native speaker before going to press. For practical reasons, we couldn't apply this to working documents, but still had them checked as often as possible. Professional translators translate into their native tongue, not away from it. Interpreters are two-way, because the same level of precision is not expected.

  4. Dear Michael,

    I appreciate your belief in the importance of learning languages. However, before you discount the value of classroom learning, and especially before drawing the analogy of language teaching to leaf-raking, I would encourage you to sit in on some language classes at Berkeley. We are graced with some of the best language teachers there are, and they have inspired generations of students not only to develop communicative competence, but to plumb the depths of those languages and cultures and to be transformed in the process.

    As for your “main problem,” which you present as prioritizing face-to-face teaching over online and computer-based language courses like Babel, Rosetta Stone, Living Language, etc., there is no dearth of research in this area. It is, in fact, one of my own areas of research, and there are many academic journals devoted to the topic (you might, for example, look at Language Learning & Technology (, where I am an associate editor). What it basically comes down to is this: the appropriateness and effectiveness of the means of learning depends on what the goals of learning are. Programs such as those you cite can be great for providing learners with a basic knowledge of structures and working vocabulary. For someone traveling who needs to “get by” in the language, these programs may be practical and efficient means to that end. However, most university language programs have broader educational goals involving the critical analysis of language and culture, inviting students to take a quantum leap beyond basic communicative proficiency to thinking about relationships between language use, culture, and identity. To allow students to develop new views of the world that can only come through the lens of another language and culture—and to understand how their “default” perspective on the world is influenced by the language/culture they have grown up with. To develop students’ creativity and insight into themselves through this process of taking distance from their home language and culture. One could add more to this list, but I think you get the idea – these are not goals that are addressed at all in the kinds of online tools that you mention.

    So, it really isn’t a matter of “deliberate ignorance” of what technology has to offer. The BLC offers lots of workshops on the use of technology, and I think you will find that teachers in our language programs make extensive use of many forms of technology (just for one example, check out BLC Associate Director Mark Kaiser’s fabulous Library of Foreign Language Clips (, which we make available to hundreds of institutions worldwide). But it is judicious use that comes from lots of thinking about how best to accomplish certain pedagogical goals.

    The experience and wisdom of our language teachers needs to be respected, and I hope that you will take the initiative to talk to some of us and learn more before making quick judgments that can be quite damaging.

    Rick Kern
    Professor of French
    Director, Berkeley Language Center

    1. I agree with everything you say about the higher learning to which a new language opens the door. Your summary of what we know about ways to get to the "getting by" level and really achieving command matches my impression. But the implication for me is that at least the first pass at a new language should be to provide the student a bunch of url's, with an invitation to come to class in a few months after you have reached that first stage: we will be be beyond writing conjugations of the present indicative on the board, and actually using this wonderful tool to learn about culture, identity, and all that good stuff. I want those grad students to be teaching interesting, gripping, stuff.

      Behind all this is my observation (and it's not based on scientific sampling) that what we're doing is not working, if "working" means students who have taken introductory (at least) language courses are able to actually read (OK, with Ultralingua on their screen) and talk, and have the confidence to do so.

      1. That is precisely my point, Michael: a bunch of URLs may be the perfect starting point for some intrinsically motivated autodidacts who want to familiarize themselves quickly with the structural elements of a language – in that case, computer-based tools might offer an efficient and effective path forward – toward that specific goal. But that is not necessarily the goal – and most importantly, the disposition – of many of our students. When you talk to language learners (and I have talked to a lot of them over the years), you hear over and over how their TEACHERS got them hooked on language study, how they piqued their curiosity, how they inspired them, how they made them view (and live) language differently. Do you seriously think that giving students a bunch of URLs is going to provide them any motivation, much less working proficiency in the language? Another premise that I think needs to be challenged is the idea that the beginning level language classroom is devoid of "interesting, gripping stuff." Right from day one, students are exposed to, and asked to integrate in a social environment, features of language and culture that get students thinking in new ways (e.g., different ways of greeting people, different forms of address for interlocutors of different relational status, different writing systems, etc.). Teachers know how to bring such things to students' attention and to make it enjoyable at the same time (this is where many computer programs fail). In the first semester they will encounter songs, poems, films, short texts, advertisements that give students the satisfaction of making meaning in a new language – I think that if you talk to some of our language students, you will find that they consider this "interesting, gripping stuff."

    2. Dear Rick and Michael — I completely agree with Rick's post. I would also like to add something about my own experience as someone of foreign origin teaching literature and culture in the French dept. at UCB.This is that the integrated language/literature/culture programs I have seen at top US universities such as ours, which are indeed the fruit of over 50 years of thoughtful development, actually work better than even the best language programs I have encountered anywhere else in the world (be it France, Britain, Italy, Germany, etc…). It was at a place like UC Berkeley that I realized that it was indeed truly possible to make someone « culturally bilingual » is 3 to 4 years. We produce such majors every year — and more that just a handful of them, rest assured. It is certainly not a small accomplishment nor ii it one that a « Rossetta Stone » app could ever equal. Such integrated programs are rare and precious. And they need to be supported as best as the university cans because they unique and uniquely efficient. Best, Déborah.

  5. I'm not sure I agree with your swapping-software-for-grad-student-jobs implication. Here in Mexico, a gringo friend and I once passed several workers preparing to attach a rotten wooden cross-beam to a telephone pole where a more decrepit rotten wooden cross-beam had fallen. My friend asked: "why don't you use new materials, so it will last longer?"

    One worker replied: "La Lei De Las Obras" (law of the workers/labor), "necesitaramos trabajo el proximo ano tambien" (we will need work next year as well).

    Another time my girlfriend from the States and I were watching 15 men with little hammers and chisels repairing a section of cobblestone street in San Miguel. She asked: "why the hell don't they get a jackhammer, or hell, a backhoe?" I explained La Lei de las Obras to her.

    I also lived in Japan, where the ridiculously elaborate route between manufacturer and retailer has about 12 wholesale stops. It adds to the retail price, of course, but their historic unemployment rate has been about 1 percent.

    Valuing the human component of the university experience, and providing jobs, is nothing to be sneezed at, no matter how well Rosetta Stone works. I'd have a job expectation of those grad students to be taking the class out for beers and forbidding a single syllable in English, with each expected to tell the table at least three bad jokes in the second tongue.

    1. This is pretty much insane. You are defending the idea of graft and corruption. If the Mexican workers used new materials that would last, they could do something else next year. Having 12 layers of wholesalers means that everyone is spending more for what they need. It is a fallacy, and a very expensive one, that the only work someone could be doing is what they are doing right now.

      1. Or feeding and clothing and housing the working class. Your take on it differs from the Latin American and Asian perspective. But we can't all be Randians.

        1. You don't have to be a Randroid to object to this kind of nonsense.

          Make work is tremendous waste. It's a waste of both money and of human labor, both of which could be put to good use making things that benefit humanity instead of squandered digging holes and filling them back up again.

          1. It's also a recipe for turning government into a giant slush fund from which to reward politicians' friends. We got rid of Tammany Hall for a reason.

          2. The WPA wasn't about useless make work or making something shitty so that it it will break in a year and you'll have to fix it again. The WPA gave people jobs, which was great. It also created useful and valuable resources, which was even better.

            WPA workers built roads, bridges, schools, etc. Many of those things are still in use today. The Federal Art Project created some really wonderful things that have had great benefits to art and culture.

            I have no problem with the government giving people jobs. I'm all in favor of it. But La Lei de las Obras is just bullshit.

          3. Make-work is is in the eye of the beholder. See, for example, the entire marketing and finance sectors.

  6. St. John's College in Annapolis and in Santa Fe, the "Great Books" school, requires two years of classical Greek and two years of French. Students learn to translate Homer, Aeschylus, Plato, Aristotle, and the New Testament as freshmen and sophomores. Then they go on to French and learn to translate Moliere, Racine, Montaigne, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire. However, after they graduate, they are unable to buy toothpaste in Paris, since this is probably the only college in the country that teaches French as a dead language. However, it must be pointed out that in the latter part of the senior year, they read and translate works written by men who died less than two hundred years ago.

  7. Michael O'Hare raises some interesting questions here. Let's set aside for the moment the fact that he doesn't seem to know much about how languages are actually taught at Berkeley (everyone is entitled to their own opinion, even when they are talking off the top of their heads). However, Prof. Kern has generously invited him to visit a class. Let's also set aside the cute anecdote about his exchange with the Romance Languages Professor (everyone is entitled to their own anecdotes–even the many I could adduce about students whose lives have been transformed in our language classes, from first generation immigrant to Foreign Service officer or Doctors Without Borders volunteer, etc.).

    What is more interesting here is that O'Hare seems to be putting forth a set of criteria for what he thinks are "serious" courses–that is, worth supporting. Let's go over them. First off, it would seem that a course needs absolutely to lead to mastery of a skill. The problem with college language courses is that they don't lead to mastery of a language, says O'Hare. So, what else do we do that doesn't lead to mastery? Let's cut it! Ok, first to go are freshman writing courses and the entire college writing program. Poof! Gone! As O'Hare says, in his best Peter Thiel-esque manner, anyone can learn a language on their own. And, indeed, anyone can learn to write on their own. Just get a copy of "The Elements of Style" and go to work. I never took college English and I sneaked through, so it CAN be done. Next, anything that feels like it's teaching a skill "leading up" to something else (so, take Spanish and later you'll be able to read Don Quijote). The "something else" is good, the "leading up" is not so good, and you can do it on your own. So if we're making cuts here we can clearly target a bunch of "language" teaching operations in STEM. Poof! Gone! (This stuff could be outsourced to Stanford anyway). And, of course, it would seem that the "serious" courses are courses–like linguistics, like literature and cultural history–that are actually teaching some "content" with a fairly highly level of conceptual and intellectual sophistication. Poof! There go any number of programs in some of the divisions of Letters and Science that I won't mention. We won't even bother to venture into some of the other divisions of the campus. This is starting to be too much fun.

    The real problem with O'Hare's screed is that, since it comes from blog-talk it's hard to tell whether he's trying to make an argument, or whether this is just journalism (Oops! Poof!). Either way, this detraction of language teaching in universities is one of those rancid ideas that comes around every so often. I remember back in the 1990s going to a meeting at which an administrator proposed seriously that all languages could be banished from Berkeley and that we could teach culture and civilization in English. That was before 9/11, however.

    (P.s. Princeton has just upped its language requirement; at Berkeley the wise faculty diluted ours at the end of the 1980s. So this a classic instance of educational policy which we see played out at the state level–cut programs and requirements, then criticize them for not delivering at optimum, and use that as logic to bludgeon them further. Fun.)

    Timothy Hampton
    Chair of French
    Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and French
    Designated Director, Townsend Center for the Humanities
    UC Berkeley

    1. Oh, dear. This has so little to do with what I actually wrote, or think, that I think I just need to leave it here.
      The conversation has been going on on a listserv at Cal. Here's the last thing I posted there:
      (1) Thanks, everybody, for the really enlightening conversation and the compliment of taking my original post seriously.
      (2) I deplore the narrow, careerist, vocational emphasis increasingly damaging the undergraduate experience in US higher education, including especially what is happening to the humanities and the arts. The petition's broader paraphrase, "stop nickeling and diming the humanities as though nickels and dimes are the right measure of their value!" is OK with me. And I repeat that I think every educated person should be polyglot–and within limits and reasonable variation, the more glots the better, so I am also interested in continued language acquisition by alums, and I would like us to set them up for it.
      (3) I don't claim to know whether the early stages of language acquisition (this is not about majors or upper-level courses) are best accomplished (nor for which students respectively) via (i) this or that on-line system, (ii) sitting down with a grammar and a dictionary and some audio, or (iii) in a classroom. The measure I have in mind is something like learning per person-hour of instructor and student 'labor''. I'm pretty sure that best entails something close to that measure, and we should know what it is.
      AFAIK the Peace Corps makes volunteers functional in a foreign language in about six intensive weeks. No immersion in the literature of the host country, probably lots of non-verbal language skills à la Edward T. Hall left to pick up on the posting. But…what can we learn from their system?
      Again, "early stages": this is not about language majors. From a narrow departmental perspective, by the way: wouldn't language profs rather have X person-semesters of grad student labor available to do research, if technology could free them from some part of introductory instruction without a big hit to student learning?
      (4) I believe we have an affirmative duty to use the resources with which we are entrusted as efficiently as possible, especially as a lot of those resources–state funds, local tax exemption, and the tax subsidy on deductible gifts–are resources taken from citizens by force, and therefore a duty to answer my question in (3) with the tool we are distinctively equipped to wield, namely research.
      (5) This conversation is part of a larger concern, which is our failure to operate a quality assurance system that will make teaching more and more effective, that (i) a Toyota or Google executive would recognize as such or (ii) that compares to our QA system for research, either in method or in accomplishment. And that concern applies right up from la plume de ma tante to our most advanced courses in everything.

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