As a Princeton Ph.D. in French literature, I was dismayed to read Daniel Mytelka ’87’s letter (Inbox, Feb. 8) in which he argues against having a foreign-language requirement at the University.
The study of foreign languages is important not only because it facilitates communication between cultures — with obvious attendant benefits for “economics, finance, statistics, medicine, law, politics, [and] foreign affairs,” the very areas which Mr. Mytelka puzzlingly claims reap no benefit from foreign language study — but also because the learning of a foreign language (or two or three) invites the student to consider new structures whereby s/he can make sense of the world.
Learning a foreign language is not merely a matter of learning what sounds to make and in what order to make them so that we can say exactly what we would say in our own tongue. No: When we learn to speak a foreign language, we actually learn to say new things, things that could not even be conceived of through the prism/prison of our native tongue, things that widen our perspective and expand our horizons.
This is how learning foreign languages gives us a second chance at life; it tells us that there is a different way, that not everything must be as we have always assumed or taken for granted. It opens us up to new ways of thinking, challenging the very structures underlying our thoughts and our understanding of the world.
Foreign languages, with the possibility for new and varied experience that they bring, are indeed at the very heart of what it means to be human.