Are foreign languages useless?
Although he is being considered for the World Bank presidency, a very diplomatic position, economist Lawrence Summers never ceases to amaze me in his capacity to offend billions in a sentence or two.
After outraging half of the world by suggesting that the under-representation of women in science and engineering could be due to a “different availability of aptitude at the high end,” Summers offended almost the entire globe this time by stating that Americans don’t need to learn a foreign language since the rest of the world would soon be fluent in English anyway.
Since I, as a native Turkish speaker, am writing this column for a daily published in Turkey in English, I would be fighting a lost battle if I tried to disagree with Summers. It would not make much of a difference if I argued that God thought a single language was not a good idea either. He confused the language of the people of Babel, causing them to speak different languages so that they would not understand each other, but could He really be wiser than Larry Summers?
Joking aside, there is no simple answer to the question, “how many languages do we need?” Economists Victor Ginsburgh, a Belgian of Austrian origin whose mother tongue is Swahili, and Shlomo Weber, a Canadian citizen who is a native Russian speaker, try to offer some answers in a great book I finished in one read on Feb. 10.
One of their arguments is that language is an essential expression of culture. Just read how the Duke of Norfolk, in Shakespeare’s Richard II, despairs at the impending inability to express himself in his native language upon learning of his banishment to Venice. On the other hand, linguistic relativity holds that culture is shaped by one’s tongue.
Yale economist Keith Chen shows exactly that. In a very recent working paper, he demonstrates that speakers of languages that grammatically distinguish between present and future events take fewer future-oriented actions: They save less, hold less retirement wealth, smoke more, are more likely to be obese and suffer worse long-run health. By the way, Turkish is such a language.
These arguments highlight the importance of one’s native tongue, but they don’t disprove Summers - neither should they undermine the importance of learning English. Compared to its peers, Turkey ranks at the bottom in English proficiency indices. Economist Atilla Yeşilada was arguing, at a seminar on Feb. 9, that this “English deficit” is a major bottleneck on productivity.
One of the most interesting parts of Paul Theroux’s “The Great Railway Bazaar” is his chat with Yaşar Kemal on Sept. 25, 1973 - I know the date because Kemal sees Pablo Neruda’s death in the paper. The Turkish novelist tells Theroux that he doesn’t speak English or any other “barbarian languages.” He doesn’t need to. He can write in Turkish, and his work will be translated into 50 different languages. But young Turks are not that lucky. They need to learn English to be more hirable.
As for me, I will happily write my columns in English, but I am glad I can enjoy “İnce Memed” and “Las Alturas de Macchu Picchu” in their beautiful original versions, which cannot be captured by any translation.