July 11, 2004

Sputnik and Language

Eric's posting about the Year of Languages led me to the statement of the program's background, which had me rolling on the floor laughing. A favorite tidbit: " The United States has a history of multilingualism . . . Jefferson himself was fluent in French and could communicate and read in several additional languages. For more than two hundred years, Americans have continued this tradition of valuing other cultures as successive waves of immigrants settled in the United States..." Yup, a great tradition, exemplified so nicely by our nation's coining the term "liberty sandwich" to replace "hamburger" during World War I (during Woodrow Wilson's administration, "[p]laying German music and teaching -- or even speaking -- the German language were prohibited" [Houghton Mifflin, Reader's Companion to American History]) , and exemplified more recently by all those good multicultural GOP lawmakers who suggested that we replace "French fries" with "freedom fries" on our beloved fast food menus.

Nonetheless, having been reading a little bit about the space program recently, I think it's worth considering the analogy between today's interest in foreign languages and the surge of math/science interest after the Sputnik launch of 1957.

There may be longstanding gaps between theoretical linguistics and language applications, but the vital national interest in foreign language capabilities (both human and technological) is an opportunity to build bridges that it seems just plain silly to ignore. Fundamental questions from Chomskyan Linguistics 101 are already rising to prominence outside the syntactic orthodoxy. Questions like "what is a language?" (since "Arabic" connotes two very different things in Yemen and in Egypt, but there's a relationship between the two). Questions like "how does linguistic form communicate underlying meaning?" (since characterizing performance on language tasks, such as human and machine translation, involves both). Questions like "how can theories about language be made internally consistent?" (since inconsistent theories are hard to operationalize).

The question is, will linguistic theory rise to the occasion? Theoretical questions do not have to be explored without reference to how they might be applied. As the post-Sputnik tide rose, it lifted theory along with engineering in research, in education, and in the national mindset. Why should linguistic theoreticians not benefit in a similar way?

Posted by Philip Resnik at July 11, 2004 04:09 PM