Richard Celeste - Colorado College

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Richard F. Celeste at the CCFLT  Annual Conference (Feb. 2006)
Photo by Dale Crum 

The Gift of New Eyes

By Richard F. Celeste, Keynote Speaker
At the Colorado Congress of Foreign Language Teachers Annual Conference

Feb. 17, 2006

I am delighted to join the dedicated teachers who comprise the activists in the Colorado Congress of Foreign Language Teachers. I know that my colleagues at CC consider you essential partners in preparing talented and venturesome students who we hope might one day attend Colorado College.

Did you know that CC now teaches 12 non-English languages? That through our Education Department we offer state licensure in Spanish, French, German, Latin and Japanese (and perhaps others)? That we provide six small language immersion houses for upper-class students each with a native speaker as head resident? And that more than 60% of our students will study abroad before graduation? We hope—indeed we expect—that a liberal arts education will be a multi-lingual education!

Wait a second. I am preaching to the converted!

Well, let me reflect for a moment on The Gift of New Eyes, and perhaps provoke you a bit in the process.

I begin with this question: why do we call them “foreign languages” anyway? I think I know why. But I have lived almost eight years of my adult life in India—a nation of 1.1 billion souls—where English, though highly regarded, is a foreign language, as it is for the vast majority of our planet’s population.

I have a hunch that our definition of “other” as “foreign” has a great deal to do with our history as a nation of immigrants. When my father was brought to the US from Italy as a child in 1910, his parents spoke virtually no English. He learned his English in the Monessen, PA public schools.

The desire to learn English was strong. One of my favorite stories about my father’s favorite older cousin Tony will illustrate this. Tony arrived in Monessen a few years before my father and he was a decade older. In that era—before child labor laws—he went immediately to work in the nail mill which was part of the Republic Steel complex there. Tony, eager to learn English, listened closely to the young man on his right as he conversed with the young man on his left. Every night he would lie in bed practicing his new language. After about a year, he decided to surprise his family with his new language skills. When he began to speak his parents registered surprise and shock. “What are you doing?” they asked. “Speaking English,” Tony responded. At that his family erupted into laughter. “No, you’re not,” they said. “You’re speaking Greek!” For the rest of his life my favorite “uncle” was called Tony the Greek by one and all.

Two models of assimilation emerged over the decades in our country. Those like my father, who chose to adopt English and for whatever reason abandon their “mother” tongue. And those, like my wife’s family, who chose to adopt English yet maintain their mother tongue. Thus, my wife Jacqueline Lundquist—whose father was a Swedish-American career US Army officer and whose mother was German—was born in Ft. Knox, KY but raised in a German-speaking circle whether in the US or Europe. In the tiny tape recordings Don Lundquist sent back to his wife from Vietnam in 1968, he can be heard singing German lullabies to his daughter. German is not a “foreign” language to Jacqueline; she speaks German fluently. But Italian was, sadly, not part of my upbringing.

There are many today—unfortunately some in high places—who see a “foreign” language as a threat to our nation’s unity or our security. They disregard the contributions of Uncle Tony, of Navajo code talkers, of multi-lingual intelligence analysts, of hard-working immigrants who are here because they embrace fervently the American dream of opportunity for all, and the ethic of hard work to realize that opportunity.

We—the choir—must challenge the meaning of “foreign”—when it is used to keep out or keep down today’s immigrants who share our dream. We must do more!

We must assert that in the world of the 21 st Century every American citizen ought to be multi-lingual. We need to be multi-lingual not so much to enjoy our holiday in Cabo or Florence, but to talk to our business partner in Tokyo or Beijing and to explain our presence in Afghanistan or Haiti.

When I became Governor of Ohio in 1983, Honda employed 300 people at their motorcycle factory. When I left office eight years later Honda employed more than 10,000 Ohioans at two assembly plants and an engine factory. The largest non-university based program of Japanese language instruction in the US was in Marysville, Ohio, designed for Honda associates and their families. And on a regular basis, dozens—even

Hundreds—of associates would travel to Honda plants in Japan for three to six month postings along side their Japanese co-workers.

Since 9/11 we tend to put security concerns ahead of our economic concerns. Here is an item from yesterday’s NY Times

Tough GI’s Go to War Armed with Afghan ABC’s: it describes 10 th Mountain Division’s 3 rd Brigade going to Afghanistan “heightened language and cultural training.

“Lt. Col. David McMorrison, the division intelligence officer, has detailed 10 soldiers to an intensive course in Pashto, the major language in Afghanistan, as their sole duty for 47 weeks.

“Counter-insurgency warfare, the 10 th Mountain soldiers now believe, is as much a political problem as a military one; as much knowing how to win over the population as shooting bad guys.”

“English only” will not help us build a more secure world. And “English only” will certainly not provide a more competitive edge in the global marketplace.

I remember vividly the comment of a graduate student from India working on her MBA at Ohio State University after listening to me as Governor call for more International Baccalaureate programs in Ohio schools. “You Americans,” she said, “must remember this: you can probably buy whatever you want in English. But you can’t sell whatever you want in English.” Perhaps our trade deficit reflects a language deficit as well.

So my first point is: What is foreign?

My second point is: Americans need to cultivate our rich legacy of multi-lingualism.

My third point—and you (the choir) know this as well—is that language alone is not enough. I was thinking about the distinction between the words: “translate” and “interpret” as I was pondering how to convey my thoughts to you. Here are definitions from the Oxford American College Dictionary.

  1. Translate:
    1. to express the sense (words or text) in another language; to convert from one into another
    2. to move from one place or condition to another: “she has been translated from familiar surroundings to a foreign court”
  2. Interpret:
    1. explain the meaning of (information, words, actions) or translate orally to words of another person speaking a different language; perform music
    2. Understand (an action, mood or way of behaving) as having a particular meaning or significance

Have you heard the story about the computer allegedly designed to assist simultaneous translation at the UN? When the version that translated English to Russian was tested with the English expression “out of sight, out of mind,” it produced the Russian for “invisible insanity.”

Truly, learning a language means digging deeper than the words themselves—into literature, and history, art and music and politics. It means living the language, to gain nuance, to enjoy humor, and to read between the lines.

We can deploy technology to detect “key words” that set off alarm bells in our intelligence agencies. We can pile up more and more intercepts of conversations. But who will understand context, distinguish subterfuge, recognize a hidden meaning?

If you are not yet too tired of me, let me pose this challenge to you.

We need to bring The Gift of New Eyes to our friends and neighbors, to our local and national leaders—

so that they come to see that “foreign” languages are not foreign after all;
so that they begin to value and reward more fully multi-lingual skills; and
so that they consider devoting some of their lives to living a second language and way of life as well.