This week, I spent a bunch of time reading. Well, to be honest, I usually spend a bunch of time reading. What caught my eye this week were articles about English and other languages. There is a lot being written lately about the importance of raising Americans to be multi-lingual.

In his New York Times essay about preparing students for the future, former Harvard president Lawrence Summers writes:

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. While there is no gainsaying the insights that come from mastering a language, it will over time become less essential in doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East. 

Talk about a big, bold statement. Much has been written in response to these words. In fact, the New York Times has printed a series of rebuttals to Mr. Summer’s directive. In the “Room for Debate” section of The Times, the article English is Global, So Why Learn Arabic? features six well-qualified individuals debating the pros and cons of teaching Americans a second or third language.

  • Stacie Nevadomski Berdan’s says that is it important for people to understand multiple languages so that they can also appreciate cultures, and connect and build relationships around the world.
  • Anthony Jackson posits that learning another language correlates closely with academic achievement.
  • Michael Erard agrees that English has become an international standard. He, too, cites the importance of understanding multiple cultures and basically says that if you are going to learn a lot about a culture, you should go all the way and learn the language, as well.
  • Melanie Ho, who is tri-lingual, says that fluency in multiple languages is not necessarily important, but proficiency is. In fact, she notes that one of her acquaintances in Hong Kong is happy to teach her Chinese, but has no desire to learn English. The Hong Kong native says that if someone wants to communicate with her, that person will have to speak Chinese.
  • Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco completely disagrees with the entire premise of Larry Summer’s statement. In fact, he goes so far as to say that people who are economists by trade (such as Larry Summers) should stay out of the conversation entirely.
  • Clayton Lewis believes that learning additional languages provides people with the ability to have more meaningful experiences and, in effect, learn more. For Clayton Lewis, being proficient isn’t enough. Fluency, while difficult, is key.

After reading these opinions, I next read Lori Thicke’s blog post Call for Translation in Kenya’s Kibera Slum. Lori’s post speaks of her experience traveling to Kiberia and meeting with a group of young sex slave workers. These young women are “peer educators”. Their job is to teach other women about family planning, nutrition, and the prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

According to the peer educators, the main challenge they face teaching others life saving facts is that all of the donated printed material is written in English. Most of the people in their village do not speak English. Therefore, this critical information is unavailable to the people who need it most.

I realize that these two sets of articles are really not focused on the same thing. The New York Times articles are all about teaching Americans to be multi-lingual. And Lori’s article is about recognizing that the rest of the world does not necessarily speak English.

What the articles all have in common is the unrealistic notion that English is somehow the only language people need to know. And whether it is teaching Americans other languages or getting Americans to produce information in other languages, the theme is the same.

We need to stop thinking that everyone speaks English. We need to recognize that other languages are equally important – sometimes making the difference between life and death.

All of these things point to one fact: If we are going to write in English, that English needs to be simple enough that it can be translated into all of the other languages that the rest of the world speaks. And it would be even better if the writers of the English content are well-versed in multiple languages so that they avoid the common English-only writing traps that we frequently create for ourselves and our translators.