The Modern Language Association of America is probably best known for their style guidelines used by many scholars and student researchers. The MLA is also a professional organization for teachers and scholars of languages and literature. (In case you’re wondering, the “modern” in the term refers to the fact that association was specifically founded to capture all of the languages other than the classics – Greek and Latin – that were prevalent in academia at the time of its founding in 1883).
Last week, the MLA issued a Statement on Language Learning and United States National Policy. It is a carefully worded, sensitive but assertive defense of foreign language education in the US, and it is definitely worth a read.
Obviously this is an issue dear to my heart, so I applaud this official stance. What I find most personally inspirational, though, is the rationale laid out in the statement. Yes, mastery of foreign languages is important for economic, political, and national security reasons, the MLA acknowledges. But beyond that, the association stresses that “such learning serves as a portal to the literatures, cultures, historical perspectives, and human experiences that constitute the human record.” The value of learning languages is not just pragmatic, but personal (a view I very much agree with). The statement also points to the wide variety of heritage languages spoken within the US, and to the fact that research demonstrates the unique cognitive benefits of learning a second (or third or fourth) language, among other reasons that sound language education is important for Americans.
For native English speakers, learning non-English languages is constantly undervalued and is impossible to overstate. I agree with the MLA: “We believe this view should be uncontroversial.”