What nerds dream about….The Washington Post tells of a groovy new national push to systematically promote and support learning foreign languages. Useful ones like Mandarin and Russian, vice French (neuf useless years pour moi. Sigh.) and German (Spanish, with its three million students, is the most taught language in America so we got that covered). In response to incentives from the College Board, the DOD and Congress, schools have rushed to teach Mandarin Chinese, the most widely spoken language on Earth, in immersion style programs that take kids from kindergarten through college and on into the new world economy in which China is certain to be a global super power. It might behoove us not to have to rely on translators when multimillion dollar deals are going down.

I spoze the usual suspects will, ahem, take umbrage at having any government, especially DOD, role in civilian, liberal artsy affairs but as long as participation in the program remains voluntary, works for me. The X Files notwithstanding, one can only hope that many of the graduates of these programs will indeed go on to contribute to DOD, as well as economic and diplomatic, efforts. (Full disclosure: I was a DOD-trained Korean linguist for about half of the twelve years I spent on active duty, so, ok, I’m biased.)

I would argue, however, that given the holistic nature of the program on offer, it’s anybody’s guess as to how these programs’ graduates will use their training:

“In the Senate, the Foreign Relations Committee is considering a proposal to allocate $1.3 billion to boost classes on Chinese language and culture in public schools, and China, too, is doing its part, said Michael Levine, education director at the Asia Society in New York City. China’s education ministry has formed partnerships with states including Kentucky and Kansas, as well as Brazil, Australia and Britain, to boost teacher exchanges and training.”

That’ll make the world smaller, won’t it? I was taught by civilian native speakers on an Army post (I was USAF tho) and plied my tradecraft on military installations in ways purely antagonistic to the country I studied. Fortunately, I got to spend two years in Korea and become truly fluent (if largely illiterate) but most military linguists never get to set foot in the country of the language they studied: you’d lose your clearance, and end up in the brig, for using your Serbo-Croatian, Chinese or Rumanian in its country of origin. Many of these grads will probably opt to live and work in China, do export/import stuff or simply become Chinese teachers. Er, teachers of Chinese. In any event, only good can come of such a program. I’m reading The Black West right now, which chronicles the role of blacks on the frontier. I’m blown away by how often blacks, free and slave, excelled as cowboys, scouts, diplomats and very, very frequently as interpreters. It’s nothing to run across blacks on expeditions who spoke several European languages (having traveled with their owners or employers for years at a time) and several Indian ones as well. Apparently, learning languages, especially ‘savage’ ones, was considered lowly. Weird how oppressed and yet how much a part of things they were. More, they were often running things ? whites routinely deferred to them in negotiations with Indians, for instance ? due to the disciplines, like language learning, that they mastered.

So, a good thing for everyone but my poor kids. It will take an act of Congress to keep me from forcing them into this program. What geek worth her salt could resist this nerdery:

In September, most of Yen’s 24 students could not speak a word of Mandarin, one of the most difficult languages to learn. But three months later, the students were singing songs in Mandarin, laboriously printing Chinese characters and following Yen’s instructions, delivered in Mandarin, with no need for any English translation. They jumped up to imitate trees, mountains and frogs at her command.

So what if they’re too geeky to have friends once I’m done with them. They’ll have Chinese.

Debra Dickerson

Debra Dickerson, a Washington Monthly editorial advisory board member, is the author most recently of The End of Blackness.