Tags: Education | Russia | coding | french | race | russian

Studying Languages Helps Us Clearly Analyze Politics

Studying Languages Helps Us Clearly Analyze Politics

By Wednesday, 06 September 2017 11:04 AM Current | Bio | Archive

Wall Street Journal columnist Andy Kessler recently urged schools to stop requiring a foreign language and instead require computer coding classes. Claiming that computerized translation makes studying languages wasted time, he notes "I took five years of French and can't even talk to a French poodle." But enabling communication may not be the main benefit of learning another language.

Perhaps I can offer useful perspective. Besides political science, I taught programming during my last 18 years at Adrian College. For eight years, I also taught Russian. This combination made more sense than it might seem, since my research focused on developing simple systematic concepts with which to think about politics. All my work therefore involved language: political and legal language, computer language, and a foreign language.

Albert Einstein thought that politics was more difficult than physics. One of the skills that can help us understand political complexity is the ability to think systematically, as physicists must. As W.S. Gilbert observed, "the meaning doesn't matter if it's only idle chatter.”

Thinking systematically about politics above all requires us to avoid stereotyping, the soil from which racism, among other evils, grows. Its temptations are inherent in language itself, in which words point to classified experiences. Columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. explains stereotyping beautifully, "I am reminded of those people who would end racial prejudice by having us all claim to be 'colorblind,' i.e. pretend we don't see race," he says. "But prejudice doesn't come because we 'notice' so-and-so is black. Rather , it comes with the assumptions we attach to that fact."

Studying another language demonstrates different ways to classify the same experiences and helps us avoid a "hardening of the categories." Thus French distinguishes between a fleuve, flowing into a sea, and a rivière, which empties into a fleuve, while in English "river" covers both meanings. Russian has two words for "where," one meaning "where at?" and the other "where to?" Likewise, Spanish distinguishes between donde and adonde.

Systematic thinkers understand that words may mean different things in different contexts. Thus "door" refers to an opening we can go through, but it can also mean something that blocks up that opening. This is not a problem, because context indicates which sense is intended and no one benefits from confusing us about this.

Ambiguous political language does present problems, though, since people seeking to manipulate us may benefit if we don't notice that a word can mean several different things. The touchier the subject, the more important to be clear about what we are saying and hearing.

Nothing is touchier than race. I once asked two students if they were for or against affirmative action. One said she favored it, the other said she was opposed. I asked their classmates if the two disagreed. Everyone thought they, indeed, disagreed. But further questioning revealed that the two students did not disagree.

Affirmative action originally meant encouraging organizations to cast recruitment nets more widely. Striving to counteract expectations (reasonable, based on previous experience) that applying was wasted effort for minority individuals, the organizations would promise not to hold applicants' race agains them. The idea was to select individuals on a non-racial basis, but from an expanded applicant pool.

Later, affirmative action came to mean promoting proportional representation of minorities in a workforce or student body by engaging in "reverse discrimination" or quotas.

Both students favored affirmative action in the older sense, and both opposed it in the newer sense. Whatever one thinks about the merits of their positions, they did not disagree with each other but merely interpreted my question differently.

Conceptual acuity, among other things, is our ability to distinguish between related but different meanings a word can point to. Studying another language can sharpen our conceptual acuity, beneficial even if we never use that language.

Of course studying computer coding can also help us understand how language works. But coding words always have only one meaning and they lack the emotional content of words often found in natural languages. They therefore present fewer opportunities to sharpen conceptual acuity.

Andy Kessler may have a point, though, when he argues against foreign language requirements. Students who take a class only because it is required often are so resentful that they learn very little. But the same problem could arise if students are required to study coding, as he advocates.

My own recommendation would be to require neither subject but to encourage students to study both of them.

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published 1981 and his most recent book is "The Case of the Racist Choir Conductor: Struggling With America's Original Sin." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

© 2020 Newsmax. All rights reserved.

1Like our page
Ambiguous political language does present problems, though, since people seeking to manipulate us may benefit if we don't notice that a word can mean several different things. The touchier the subject, the more important to be clear about what we are saying and hearing.
coding, french, race, russian
Wednesday, 06 September 2017 11:04 AM
Newsmax Media, Inc.

Newsmax, Moneynews, Newsmax Health, and Independent. American. are registered trademarks of Newsmax Media, Inc. Newsmax TV, and Newsmax World are trademarks of Newsmax Media, Inc.

America's News Page
© Newsmax Media, Inc.
All Rights Reserved