Language and American Perceptions of the World

Imagine for a moment that you were preparing for a fact-finding trip to a foreign country and that you had to choose between background reports produced by two competing informants.

The first is by a person who has visited the place on a number of occasions in controlled situations (planned group visits, study tours, and perhaps even interpreter-enabled reporting) but does not speak its language. However, he or she has worked to augment the necessarily filtered impressions garnered during these experiences by reading a great deal about the place in his or her only fully functional language: English.

The second is by a person who has lived and worked a great deal in the country and understands and speaks its language(s) with precision. He or she can thus not only listen to “officials” making pronouncements in English designed for the consumption of foreign reporters, but can also garner relevant information by engaging in casual and unscripted conversation with people in the country’s cafés, parks, and workplaces. This person can, of course, also read the country’s newspapers and, when the need arises, consult scholarship written by the nation’s foremost experts in their own language, and thus within—for better or worse—its own set of dominant paradigms. Obviously, he or she can also read the New York Times, watch CNN in English, and study the latest position papers produced by strategy-minded think-tanks in Washington.

I think that most would agree that for any person with a sincere interest in understanding the realities of this particular foreign country, the second option is far and away the better one.

So the inevitable question arises: Why do the great majority of people who explain foreign “realities” to the American people (journalists and so-called experts) more closely resemble informant number one than informant number two?

When it comes to journalists, the argument is made that there are few people with the skill set of the second person currently available within the profession. This may be true. But if it is so, whose fault is that?

After all, isn’t this the same press corps that has, over the last three decades, dutifully passed on to us the business community’s message that we all must adapt to the changing world, even if that process of adjustment involves saying goodbye to established older employees and replacing them with cheaper, younger people of greater ability?

There are many places to find people possessing the type of strong linguistic and cultural skills outlined above. Graduate humanities programs in the U.S. and elsewhere—to name just one possible pool of talent—are filled with them. Recruiting these people and turning them into practicing journalists would be a rather rapid and straightforward process.

Yet here we are in 2011 and all our major news organizations are still hostage to an overwhelmingly monolingual cadre of reporters, people who are themselves pitifully dependent—yet ironically and tragically unable to ever determine really just how much—on an army of native interpreters possessing wildly varying linguistic skills, political inclinations, and critical-thinking abilities.

Though it might surprise many people to hear this, the situation is not all that much better among the ranks of the many academic “experts” paraded across our television screens and given prominent places on the op-ed pages of our major dailies.

Sometime after World War II, the leaders of American universities decided that it was much more important to have people on their faculties with the ability to talk about foreign cultures than with the ability to talk to them or, better yet, with them. It is a change that coincided with the rise of departments of political science and strategic studies on our campuses.

Under the new reality, one no longer needed to go through the long and often arduous process of becoming a “person in the foreign culture” in order to spout off in public as an expert about its core realities. No, now all one needed to do was to read a bunch of articles and books written in English by area-studies “theorists” and “strategic thinkers” who often had a tenuous or, in a surprisingly large number of cases, nonexistent (outside of guided and interpreted visits) dialogue with the language and culture of their alleged “area of expertise.” That the new discourses about the other had the additional problem of being predicated, more often than not, on an underlying belief in the essentially normative and universal nature of U.S. cultural, political, and economic behaviors made things even worse.

But on second thought, maybe this was, and is, precisely the aim.

In her work on colonial literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Mary Louise Pratt points to the high incidence of “promontory views” within the literary accounts of British travelers to Africa. By this she means descriptions of the foreign territories made from “on high,” that is, from a vantage point that both encourages a sense of mastery over the land and avoids any hint of engagement or messy entanglement with its complexities or those of the “native” people who have dwelt upon it for centuries. She suggests, moreover, that the frequency of these scenes of commanding detachment was no accident. Rather, they were an integral element of the effort of the British ruling class to prepare ordinary citizens for their role as invaders and predators of far-off places.

Our monolingual journalists and “strategic thinkers” perform much the same function today. By limiting our knowledge of the invaded other to a “promontory view” that is almost always filtered through the lens of our own linguistic, cultural, and, of course, “strategic” norms, they provide an invaluable service to the planners at the State Department and the Pentagon.

A press and pundit corps that regularly tells us about those people without ever having to really talk with them and listen to them on their own terms, in the language they most clearly and eloquently express themselves (“Mrs. Drone Attack Survivor, I overheard you talking about how your now-incinerated daughter used to snuggle with you and your husband in bed in the morning. Could you tell us more?”), effectively discounts the true measure of their humanity. This, in turn, sends a message to the reader that the other’s dreams and hopes are fundamentally different, a.k.a. lesser, than our own.

Were you an architect of the U.S. Empire, you’d have to be quite happy with this situation. But should we?

Lest you think this is the concern of someone narrowly concerned with the importance of language, consider this. What credence would we give to the work of a U.S.-based reporter from another country who was unable to understand English? (Borat, anyone?) Surely, we would quickly consign it to the realm of the hopelessly shoddy if not the laughably propagandistic. Yet this is exactly the type of stuff that we as a nation imbue with sacred importance in our national conversation every day.

Author: Thomas Harrington

Thomas Harrington teaches Iberian studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.