PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 March, 2012, 12:00am


In a recent New York Times op-ed, former Harvard president Lawrence Summers wrote: 'English's emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world, make it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile.'

In multilingual Hong Kong, the investment required to learn English, Putonghua or even French is rarely questioned. But since the question 'What is education for?' underlies the ongoing introduction of new curriculums in local schools and universities, we should perhaps not ignore a leading educator questioning a central element of local education.

Summers' argument is at least superficially reasonable. Why waste time learning something that isn't actually necessary? Google Translate works in both directions, and the technology will improve. And, anyway, how is one to know which language will provide the best competitive advantage?

But the argument is based on something of a false premise. Learning a foreign language hasn't been considered 'universally worthwhile' for many decades. The rationale behind the French classes in my public high school in western Massachusetts was not possible professional opportunities across the Atlantic, but to read Racine and Flaubert.

How does one justify teaching anything? Why learn history when there is Wikipedia? Or maths, when even phones have calculators?

Little that one learns in school ends up being directly necessary to daily lives or careers, and exactly which bits end up being relevant years later is often unpredictable. Yet people with some level of proficiency in a variety of subjects - a reasonable definition of being 'well-educated', as opposed to 'well-trained' - tend to have better track records.

But the question remains: if any given subject can be made expendable by technology and changing world conditions, why should languages retain a permanent place in curriculums?

There is, I think, a reason that goes beyond whatever practical utility languages might have. The process of becoming 'well-educated' includes not just the accumulation of knowledge, but also - we should hope - the wisdom that comes from having an appreciation of just how much one doesn't know.

Monolingual environments induce the self-reinforcing illusion that everyone has assumptions and priorities similar to one's own - an illusion which is hard to maintain when faced with another language. Other languages divide up the world rather differently and often quite mysteriously. Some of the most basic things one thinks one knows become errors in a foreign language.

Furthermore, people who study foreign languages are at least forced to learn how to listen. If one were to attribute a single cause to America's various foreign policy failures, it is surely this: not so much an unwillingness to listen, but a lack of appreciation that listening is even part of the process.

Hong Kong may need no convincing about the practical value of learning foreign languages. But this should not blind us to their more intangible benefits. Education should ideally impart some humility about the universality of one's assumptions. Languages serve this purpose admirably.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books