Language Education Speaks to Better Transatlantic Relations
On March 17, 2017, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made her first visit to speak with United States President Donald Trump. They also made one very awkward moment at the end of their meeting.
The press caught Trump seemingly reject Merkel’s concluding handshake inquiry. White House press secretary Sean Spicer covered for Trump thereafter, stating “I do not believe he heard the question.”
One wonders what else Trump might not have heard Merkel say during their meeting together…
Trump does not speak German. But he apparently also does not “speak” the same policy agenda. However, these two languages might not be mutually exclusive.
Language not only has the power to phonetically structure how one speaks, but also semantically change one’s reality, according to studies reported by NPR in 2012. Lera Boroditsky, an associate professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, says that “language has the power to change us.” This reality changes when we learn new words or linguistic structure to form a new way of thinking.
Another 2015 study published in Psychological Science reported that, “Multilingual exposure may promote effective communication by enhancing perspective taking.” An experiment with children, ages four to six, tested perspectives. An adult and child sat across from each other at a table with obstructive objects placed between them. In front of the child were three toy cars ranging in size from small, medium, and large.
The adult asked the child to move the “small” car. Multilingual children had a 25 percent better success rate at moving the medium sized car – the car the adult could see, realizing that to them the medium-sized car was the smallest visible to the adult across the table of obstructive objects. This study conveys that multilinguals can better process (and more quickly process) another’s perspective.
In other words: speaking the languages of others has the potential to bridge mutual understanding across cultures, countries, and continents.
Unfortunately, if U.S. education policy does not change, U.S. citizens will not have a chance to learn languages. From 1997 to 2008, middle schools in the U.S. cut foreign language education by 17 percent, as reported by The Atlantic. And, this has ripple effects: MLA reports that in 2015, only 7 percent of college students enrolled in a language course.
But what does this have to do with transatlantic relations? With less language commonality comes less mutual understanding and thereby less cooperation and transatlantic relationships. The Trump-Merkel handshake mishap makes this evident.
Before jumping to fix economic policy with trade deals or environmental policy with international standards, we need to strengthen language education. Language education is the foundation to all other policy.
The first 2017 Atlantic Expedition’s New Narrative report emphasizes the need to “Reinvigorate Democratic Debate and Double Down on Education Policy” via exchange programs through DAAD or the State Department. Programs like these are crucial for fostering the youths’ language education, skills, and understanding of cultures. Increasing these exchange programs can increase the number of future leaders in the transatlantic relationship.
And, it is education programs like these that many of the current diplomats, representatives, or transatlantic relations scholars began in, gaining international and language experience, or even teaching themselves.
In 2013, the Huffington Post reports that U.S.’s 133th Congress consisted of 102 professional educators. The Joint National Committee for Languages also reported a survey in 2013, wherein over 65 percent of those who responded, 35 percent had “at least some second language ability” and 20 percent “claimed to speak the language fluently.”
It is important that we reach the leaders that realize not only the importance of education, but the importance of language education. Let us remind these policy makers where they started. It is only after we can genuinely learn and understand each other that a real transatlantic relationship can begin.
This relationship is more than policy on paper. Real, human relationships comprise the transatlantic relationship.
Like the Czech proverb says: “As many languages you know, as many times you are a human being.”