Patrick M. Erben: Learning Foreign Languages Increases Inter-Human Understanding

A Harmony of the Spirits: Translation and the Language of Community in Early Pennsylvania, by Patrick M. Erben Today we welcome a guest post from Patrick M. Erben, author of A Harmony of the Spirits: Translation and the Language of Community in Early Pennsylvania. In the book, Erben challenges the long-standing historical myth that language diversity posed a threat to communal coherence. By revealing a mystical quest for unity, Erben presents a compelling counternarrative to monolingualism and Enlightenment empiricism in eighteenth-century America.

In this guest post, Erben discusses the MLA’s Statement on Language Requirements for Doctoral Programs in English and the importance of learning languages other than English.


Recently, the Modern Language Association’s “Statement on Language Requirements for Doctoral Programs in English” ignited a blogosphere and Twitter debate, followed by a response from MLA Executive Director Rosemary G. Feal, who defended the statement’s call for “advanced competence in at least one language other than English.”

What are the stakes in deciding whether Ph.D.s in English and American language and literature must demonstrate advanced skills in a language other than English? At the heart of my response is the firm conviction that the humanities matter deeply in determining the texture and orientation of our society’s culture and values. “Foreign” language training and competency—from K-12 schools to higher education—fundamentally impact our ability to understand our history, our identity as a nation of multilingual immigrants, and our relationship to an increasingly more complicated world in an age of globalization.

My own story of language learning is, though anecdotal, instructive for dislodging one of the central arguments brought against the MLA’s statement—that “foreign” language training is no longer a necessary and useful tool for professors and scholars in English. Growing up in Germany in the 1970s and 80s, my early encounter with intensive English-language instruction (starting in 5th grade and continuing, 4 or 5 days a week, through high school graduation) of course reflects post-World War II Germany’s embrace of the culture, political system, and language of the United States.

But my “foreign” language training went beyond the utilitarian goal of equipping students for a globalized marketplace dominated by English. Still indebted to the older philological model, we studied grammar, common linguistic roots of German and English, and eventually literature—from Macbeth to The Catcher in the Rye. Taking Latin from 7th grade onward, I gained insights into deeper semantic and grammatical connections and differences between both languages. I also became more deliberate in thinking about my native language.

In short, I discovered a love of language and literature through my encounter with other languages. Everything I was able to do as a scholar of American literature and culture—particularly my study of the translingual interactions of English and German immigrants in colonial Pennsylvania—has been due to an early and sustained training in and fascination with English and its relationship to other languages.

In this sense, the critics of the MLA statement are correct: a few semesters of foreign-language training during a Ph.D. program cannot accomplish the goals of acquiring deeper translingual and multilingual sensibilities among future professors and scholars of English. Doing away with the language requirement at the Ph.D. level, however, means further eroding an ideal from the top down that is already being rotted away from the bottom up.

What matters more than the goal of language learning is its motivation. Instead of regarding “foreign” language instruction as a means for preserving academic privilege or meeting the demands of a global marketplace, we need to embrace the acquisition of languages as a preparation for one of the most fundamental experiences we share as human beings—the encounter with difference. We should all learn how to become translators so we can appreciate and negotiate the inherent challenges and promises of traversing gaps in meaning between languages and people. Inter-human understanding lies somewhere between the puzzling incommensurability of languages and the utopian desire to achieve the seemingly impossible—a common language.

In 17th-century Europe, social, religious, and linguistic thinkers considered the linguistic confusion of Babel the foremost obstacle to overcoming human divisions. According to Umberto Eco’s The Search for the Perfect Language, Babel was interpreted as “the story of how a real wound had been inflicted on humanity, a wound that might, in some way, be healed once more.” The Czech educator, linguist, and theologian Jan Amos Comenius stood at the forefront of this effort. His popular and much translated Ianua Linguarum Reserata (The Gate of Tongues Unlocked) was a linguistic manual that paired Latin with various vernaculars in parallel columns. The earliest English edition hyperbolically advertised the book as “a short way of teaching and thorowly learning within a yeare and a halfe at the farthest, the Latin, English, French, (and any other) tongue, together with the ground and foundation of arts and sciences.” In an even more utopian gesture, Comenius’s Panglottia proposed a universal language that would create “one common spirit for the whole body” of humanity.

My book A Harmony of the Spirits demonstrates that various communal experiments in early America attempted to harness the utopian spirit that propelled Comenius and other European reformers. Pennsylvania, a colony paradigmatic for its religious, linguistic, and ethnic diversity, seemed to offer the perfect laboratory for discovering a remedy for the divisive effects of Babel. Although settlers and authors ranging from Quaker founder William Penn to the German immigrant Francis Daniel Pastorius quickly realized that the New World was just as fallen as the Old, they eventually came to appreciate a new possibility: that reforming human interaction depended on a laborious effort of linguistic and cultural negotiation akin to the work of the translator.

In his multilingual commonplace book entitled The Bee-hive, Pastorius expressed spiritual, moral, and intellectual concepts in up to seven languages. More than a mere flaunting of his elite education, Pastorius’s multilingual writings urged readers to find understanding across linguistic and religious differences. In a letter to William Penn, Pastorius enclosed a poem written in German. Pastorius’s introduction, in English, asked governor Penn to meet one of his German-speaking settlers on his linguistic grounds: “Whereas, Loving and dearly Esteemed Friend, in thy Travails in Holland and Germany thou hast heard & learned somewhat of my Mother-tongue; I hereby make bold to subjoyn a few lines in the same.” For Pastorius, a position of power also required the ability to communicate with those who spoke a different language. In turn, Pastorius assumed the work of linguistic mediator by translating the English laws of the province for the German and Dutch-language minority, thus enabling them to participate more fully in the new society.

The reminder Pastorius issued Penn would serve equally well academics today, who too often consider English a universal medium of inquiry. Learning that knowledge of other cultures as well as our own requires feats of translation is a humbling experience that would elevate our profession. For example, foreign language competency should become more central to the training and work of scholars and teachers specializing in American literature and culture, especially its early period: colonial America was settled, contested, and negotiated in a variety of languages and its speakers.

The “Republic of Letters” in early America spoke many languages, the Enlightenment culture that presumably gave rise to the American Revolution was multilingual and cosmopolitan, and its predecessor, late Renaissance humanism, was all the more so. The archive of the early-modern Atlantic world is multilingual. Professors and teachers who do not study and teach non-English language sources—at least in translation, because good translations preserve elements of difference found in the originals—train their students in cultural and linguistic myopia.

Finally, the oft-repeated argument that multilingual competencies are too difficult to attain misses the mark: the writers and readers in early America who tried to navigate multilingual environments relied on tools of linguistic mediation, especially translation. Academic conferences, publishing, and teaching should be populated by networks of scholars who refine their understanding of Native American, African, German, Spanish, French, Dutch and other European and non-European linguistic, literary, and cultural formations in the early-modern Atlantic in constant exchange with each other. The idea that the “multilingual turn” has somehow placed on each of us the unmanageable burden of becoming polyglot savants is simply a straw man argument.

Granted, the MLA statement and its underlying philosophy of promoting advanced language competency in languages other than English has a utopian sensibility that opens it up to all kinds of criticism. Yet its motivations and goals square with a dazzlingly complicated American culture and its relationship to the rest of the globe—both in the past and now. Striking linguistic proficiency beyond English from the list of tools we bring to the job would mean abandoning from the get-go the very desire to understand multiple subjectivities and linguistic expressions.

Rather, other fields beyond English that study discourse, language, society, culture, and human interaction in the broadest sense—including history, sociology, anthropology, art, psychology, and so forth—should take a cue from the MLA’s statement and make multilingual competencies an integral part of their curricula in order to ensure their relevance in studying the past, as well as the world we live in now.

Patrick M. Erben is associate professor of English at the University of West Georgia. His book A Harmony of the Spirits: Translation and the Language of Community in Early Pennsylvania was published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia. You can become a fan of the book and keep up with events and more on Facebook.