Language Lessons

OPB | Aug. 13, 2008 midnight | Updated: Sept. 10, 2013 8:43 p.m.

What do you learn when you learn a language — and can it prevent a war?

In letters, proposals, testimony, and blog posts, retired health administrator Dave Porter has a single-minded focus: to convince various Oregon policymakers to create more Mandarin programs for public school students. Porter is not shy about his reasons, either. With China rising in every possible way, he argues, understanding our mighty rival in its own language will be crucial if we’re going to avoid military conflict in the future.

Porter’s passion brings up a larger question, voiced recently in our July suggest-a-show thread. Rick Conlorec wrote:

I’d like to see a show on the value of knowing a foreign language (I know there are some great benefits, but what exactly are they?)

What exactly do you learn when you learn a language? Can you really learn a language without learning the culture of the people who speak it? Can you really learn about a foreign culture without learning that culture’s language? And how exactly — in the realms of business, or politics, or spectacle — can understanding another language change the dynamics of interpersonal relations?

What would change, exactly, if Porter’s wish were granted, and five percent of graduating high school seniors in Oregon had taken at least two years of Mandarin and spent at least four months in China?

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