Commentary: Abolish language requirement?

Mar 19, 2013

I didn’t go to an exceptionally good public school system, but I did have to study Spanish from kindergarten through eighth grade. More than 20 years later, I found myself in Colombia covering the aftermath of a volcano that buried a town. My rusty Spanish was anything but fluent, but I was able to ask directions, order meals, hire transportation and have basic conversations.

In high school I studied Latin, and later learned French and German, plus a smattering of Russian and Japanese. I am not really fluent in any of those languages, but they have helped me immeasurably. If I could do my life over, the major change I would make would be to have studied more languages more deeply.

If anything, this is far more essential today. We have a global economy, and a few years ago, Michigan sensibly started requiring high school students to take a second language to graduate. So I was horrified to learn that one of our state representatives, Phil Potvin of Cadillac, has introduced a bill to get rid of our language requirement and the requirement that students take Algebra 2.

Potvin wants to allow them to take computer science instead. His legislative director explained this by saying that “many students are looking to enter the skilled trades,” and so don’t need to know other languages. Whether he realizes it or not, what he’s arguing is that we should be two societies: An educated elite, and a mass of technocrats and workers who can function in only one language.

Potvin should know better. He may have made his money in the concrete business, but he has been a teacher and has an MBA. Does he suppose that parts and equipment don’t come from other countries these days? Or that skilled workers can’t master languages?

I’ve met blue-collar workers in France and Belgium who could handle basic conversations in four languages. They become multilingual from birth because they have to, given their geography and their economy.

Americans could get by with a single language when we were an agricultural country separated by weeks of travel from anywhere else. Later, the world indulged our ignorance when we were an economic superpower. Those days are over. Today, kids ought to learn Spanish from birth, and if we want to be truly competitive, they ought to start studying Mandarin Chinese as soon as possible.

Ignorance isn’t strength. I don’t know if Potvin has any idea that his name means that his family came from a particular province in Western France, where they certainly didn’t pronounce it POT-vin.

But he might agree that it could be a good thing to have some workers recognize, for example, that the German word “gift” means not present, but poison.

The Michigan Department of Education strongly opposes Potvin’s bill, on the grounds that it will make kids less competitive. Passing it would also send a message to the nation and the world that Michigan is a state of profoundly ignorant yahoos.

Governor Snyder told me once that while he has business and law degrees, he regrets not really knowing any languages. Hopefully if the legislature is dumb enough to pass Potvin’s bill, Snyder will strike a relentlessly positive blow for our future and veto it. Tout suite.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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