Posted on by Peter Rettig

Wonks, Foreign Languages, and Presidential Politics

A recent NPR a
rticle by Stephen M. Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard University, cIn this photo from 1938 undergraduates of Oxford University walk to lectures, well equipped with books.aught my attention: Foreign Policy: 10 Things Future Wonks Should Know.

The article meant to address the "things" our future Secretaries of State or for that matter, the students and future international policy wonks should learn.

(The 1938 photo from the article shows undergraduates from Oxford University as they walk to lectures, well equipped with books.)

Foreign Language

While I certainly cannot argue with any of his ten points, I wish he had listed “Foreign Language” as #2 or even #1 (instead of #3) for all the excellent reasons he mentions:

“... I know that everyone is learning English these days, but learning at least one foreign language provides a window into another culture that you can't get any other way, and also provides a sense of mastery and insight that is hard to achieve otherwise.”

It seems clear to me that among the many other “things” a foreign policy expert should know, foreign language and history should be on top. Considering the interconnections of our lives with the rest of the world, Prof. Walt's reasoning does not only apply to foreign policy wonks, but indeed to many industries, businesses, and people.

He also speaks to “a sense of mastery that is hard to achieve otherwise,” a point that is rarely mentioned when enumerating the benefits of knowing a foreign language.

Presidential Politics

The current presidential election campaign in the US also makes me again painfully aware of the fact that knowing another language (than English) does not give any candidate an advantage with the voting public.

You may all remember that John Kerry downplayed his knowledge of French in 2004, and Mitt Romney is currently doing the same.

President Obama is now staying away from that topic as well, as he got blasted in 2008 when regretting: “I don't speak a foreign language. It's embarrassing ... It's embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe and all we can say is merci beaucoup, right?" (CBS News 7/11/2008)

But for those who endeavor to learn another language both the “window into another culture” and the “sense of mastery” provide ample rewards.