Why Language?

Grinnell project promotes power of knowing multiple languages

March 20, 2014

Stacey Schmeidel

“It's kind of a weird superpower, but if I had something I could immediately wish for, I would love to be able to speak any language.”
— President Barack Obama

There are all kinds of reasons to learn to speak another language; cultural literacy, career advancement, and global engagement come to mind.

For Todd Armstrong, professor of Russian, it’s simple. “Grinnell College aims to graduate students who can think clearly, speak and write persuasively, and evaluate their own and others’ ideas,” he says, paraphrasing the College’s mission statement. “If our students can’t think critically and communicate effectively — not just in English, but in the languages and cultures of the world — we fail.”

And so Armstrong and a cadre of committed colleagues have mounted the Why Language Project, aimed at educating people about the importance of foreign language study and its central role in the liberal arts.

Walk the halls of Alumni Recitation Hall , and you’ll see early evidence of their effort: large, colorful posters proclaiming the value of speaking another language.

One poster features Colin Powell, former U.S. secretary of state: “To solve most of the major problems facing our country today — from wiping out terrorism to minimizing global environmental problems to eliminating the scourge of AIDS — will require every young person to learn more about other regions, cultures, and languages.”

Another cites Forbes Magazine on the importance of multilingualism in business. Other countries are educating business leaders with extensive experience and the ability to speak more than one language, Forbes notes. “Do you really think your experience is enough?”

And — because work isn’t everything — there’s this philosophical take from The Observer: “If you don’t have another language, you are condemned to occupy the same positions, the same phrases, all your life. It’s harder to outwit yourself, harder to doubt yourself, in just one language. It’s harder to play.”

At Grinnell, where there are no required courses beyond the First-Year Tutorial, it’s especially important to raise student and faculty awareness about language study, Armstrong notes, adding that Grinnell is one of the best places in the country to study another language. Grinnell has multiple autonomous language departments, offering programs in Chinese, Japanese, French, Arabic, German, Russian, and Spanish (as well as courses in Hindi, Italian, and Portuguese). Grinnell students who study other languages develop a multidimensional command of them — not only learning to speak, but also conducting research in other languages, and even publishing their research findings in languages other than English. And students who double major in a foreign language and another subject are especially well-positioned for success after graduation.

Hanna Griff-Sleven ’81 is one of those well-positioned double majors. Currently director of cultural programs for the Museum at Eldredge Street (a national historic landmark and restored synagogue on New York City’s Lower East Side), she was a keynote speaker at a Languages for Life Reunion program on campus in November. Featuring class visits, lunchtime language tables, and a festival of foreign films, the two-day event was an opportunity to share stories — in English, French, Spanish, and a variety of other tongues.

In her keynote, Griff-Sleven confirmed that she has benefited from her double major in French and American studies. She enjoys speaking French with foreign visitors to the museum. And her study-abroad experience in France during the first semester of her senior year at Grinnell deepened her insight into French culture, “and gave me a greater understanding of what it meant to be American,” she says.

Griff-Sleven’s deepening understanding of another culture is just what Armstrong and colleagues hope to inspire with the Why Language Project. In Griff-Sleven’s case, the learning began early.

“There were two things that my parents required of their children while we were growing up,” says Griff-Sleven, whose parents grew up bilingual in Yiddish and studied French in school before serving abroad in the military during World War II. “My parents’ service experiences broadened their horizons and their love of languages, and so they required all of their children to learn to love music and to learn to speak another language. And that’s where it all started for me.”

She then came to a realization that is at the heart of Grinnell’s language initiative.

“I understood that in order to make a better world, we needed to speak another language.”

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