Is Learning Foreign Languages Worthwhile?

I’m monolingual. Considering I work for Smartling and in the cultural hub of NYC, this is more of a confession. So, while I could respond to Lawrence Summers’ assertion that learning a foreign language is not “universally worthwhile” and will “become less essential in doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East,” I think it’s best if some of the bilingual Smartlings join the debate on whether learning foreign languages is worth your while:

Kala Maxym

Office Manager & Executive Assistant

Fundamentally, I disagree with Summers. Language is beautiful, intimate, culturally-sensitive, specific, nuanced, and the ultimate form of human expression (and that coming from a musician!) No matter how good an interpretation or how precise a translation, Borges wrote in Spanish, Poe in English, and Rilke in German. They were Spanish, English, and German writers, not only in terms of the content of their poetry and prose but in their form of expression and communication, the colors and emotions they evoke in their writing, etc. Even the best English translation can never hope to be 100% faithful to the language these writers set out to write in their mother tongues.

If all you ever wish to do in business is broker deals between highly educated, high-income individuals in the banking, finance, legal, medical or a couple other professions, then English will certainly suffice. If you wish to go deeper into a society, perhaps into something like social enterprise, micro-finance, government, environmental studies or any humanities/social science profession, English is insufficient. The moment you need to understand the particular social influences in a community to be able to complete your job well, language is, in my opinion, the most important aspect to making a successful business transaction.

I grew up bilingual in Germany, spent many years living in England, and have lived across the United States. I still sometimes have to ask my British or expat friends to explain a phrase or term they are using. Brings to mind Churchill’s infamous line: The United States and the United Kingdom are two countries separated by a common language.

Max Sogin

Director of Software Development

Kala hit the nail on the head, so I won’t add more to those thoughts. I never read Russian writers, translated into English, but I really enjoyed reading Fowles, Shakespeare, Palahniuk and many many others translated into Russian. (By the way, Palahniuk’s grandpa was Ukrainian.)

I do believe that the translation might be as good as the original, but the truth is that it requires the translator to be the same or comparable to author’s caliber. For example, most of Shakespeare’s sonnets were translated by Marshak, who is also a well-known Russian writer. Sure, Marshak isn’t a “Russian Shakespeare,” but he isn’t a regular translator either.

Similar to Kala’s point on the differences in English, I can fluently speak Eastern-Ukrainian language, and while officially there is just one Ukrainian language, I can hardly understand what Western-Ukrainians say.

Conny Hayes

Client Services Manager

I agree with Kala and Max’s points above… the beauty of different languages, the joy of being multi-lingual and being able to communicate and read other languages, etc. But the argument made by Summers that English as the lingua franca means nobody needs to learn a language other than English (and English speakers need never learn another language at all), frankly, stinks of linguistic imperialism. So, Americans (in this case) can forego the investment in learning another language, while it’s a worthwhile investment for the rest of non-English speaking world? Even if one were to accept that English is the lingua franca today, who’s to say it won’t be Chinese or Spanish in another 10 years? Where will that leave all those that counted on being able to get by in English?

There are many cultures (Japan and France come to mind) that are perfectly capable of conversing and “doing the deal” in English, but culturally, they’d rather give the business to somebody who at least makes an effort in their language and culture. So there are absolutely economic consequences of doing business only in English.