Letters to the Editor: Three Suggestions on Languages for Historians

Thomas M. Adams, January 2010

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To the Editor:

The importance of language learning in the teaching and study of history has not gone unnoticed. The authors of The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century (published for the AHA by the University of Illinois Press in 2004; also available online at www.historians.org/projects/cge/2004/report), drew attention to the relatively feeble contingent of professional historians dedicating their careers to advancing historical knowledge of areas outside the United States. “Is the inflation of the American fields the result,” they asked, “of the reduction of general language requirements?” While the focus of the study was on graduate departments of history, the need for language skills pointed to a deficiency at earlier levels. “Too few undergraduate advisors of history students,” they argued, “make the case for languages (or study abroad) early enough or strongly enough to students considering graduate education in the field.” (See pages 57–58.)

Although many historians individually encourage language study and proficiency, the profession as a whole has not found a way to make progress in this area. Here are three suggestions that may have some appeal:

  1. Let the AHA establish a John Quincy Adams prize for the best undergraduate research paper based primarily on sources and secondary works in languages other than English. The National Park Service guide at the Adams Historical Park (where I was a recent visitor) waved her hand at the books in the library and proudly asserted that John Quincy Adams could read, speak, and write in 14 languages, and that the library contained books in all these languages. Whether JQ would pass an ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) proficiency test in all 14 languages is beside the point—he used them all (more or less). Prizes might be directed also at high school students and at teaching innovations that involve languages.
  2. Let the AHA take a leading role in promoting the learning of languages other than English through meetings with leading scholars in other potentially interested organizations, both in the field of language teachers and among “end-user” organizations. In addition to the Modern Language Association, the language folks should include the ACTFL, the various organizations devoted to specific languages (French, German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic), and the National Council on Less Commonly Taught Languages. In the “end-user” camp, include the multitude of organizations devoted to international study, and area studies organizations (Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, the former states of the USSR, and so on).
  3. Let the National History Center conduct seminars on ways of embedding the use of languages in the history curriculum. A partner in this effort is ready at hand: the group of scholars from various disciplines who have developed courses and programs under the rubric of “Cultures and Languages Across the Curriculum.” They hold annual meetings and would certainly welcome a session proposal aimed at enabling historians and their foreign language colleagues to form effective teaching partnerships. Such seminars might also explore the role of language in history, featuring scholars such as Nicholas Ostler, author of Empires of the Word: a Language History of the World.

—Thomas M. Adams
Washington, D.C.