Language Schools Commencement Address by John Beyrle

Mead Memorial Chapel
August 17, 2012

President Liebowitz, members of the faculty, relatives and friends of the graduates, and to you, the graduates of the 2012 Middlebury Summer Language Schools:

Are we breaking The Language Pledge right now? I remember very clearly signing that pledge on my first day here in the summer of 1975. They really put the fear of God into us over that piece of paper, for good reason, as things turned out—and it hadn’t even been trademarked in those days. I don’t think I ever signed anything rescinding the pledge, so it’s probably still in force—just another of those moral and ethical dilemmas that diplomats and academics seem to specialize in. I guess I can take some comfort in the knowledge that none of you broke the pledge over the past weeks. If you did, Reverend Geisler will be hearing confession and granting absolution after the ceremony tonight.

It’s a great delight for Jocelyn and me to be invited back to Middlebury. And I am truly humbled—no other word quite captures the emotion—to be awarded an honorary degree from this College which, more than any other American educational institution, has elevated the teaching and learning of modern foreign languages to a level beyond science and arts. I think of it as something like the soul of this college. If you Google Middlebury College, Language Schools is the first option offered by predictive search. So to all of you here today who have completed the rigorous academic program that allows you to call yourself a graduate of the Middlebury College Summer Language School, I say: smart move. Congratulations. I salute your accomplishment. Give yourselves a round of applause.

And you can also congratulate yourselves for the contribution you have made to the national interest and national security of the United States, if you’re an American. If you come from another country, you’ve certainly helped your own nation in a similar way—but not to the same degree as the American students. This is not an audience that requires a long lecture on the sad decline of foreign language proficiency in the United States. For me, a single number is sufficient: eighteen. That’s the percentage of Americans who say they can speak a language other than English—and this in a country where, according to the Census Bureau in 2009, more than 12% of the population can be classified as immigrants. By contrast, 58% of Europeans can speak more than one language. In China, more than one-fifth of the population is studying English, leading to estimates that by 2030, English-speaking Chinese will outnumber native speakers.

This dominance of English—it's long been considered the global language of business, and now without doubt it is the lingua franca of the Internet, as well—consistently leads otherwise reasonable people to conclude that, for Americans, the study of foreign languages is a waste of time. Just a few months ago, a former President of a major Ivy League university wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in which he argued “English’s emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world, make it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile.”

As my daughters would say, that is sowrong! And fortunately, Middlebury Vice President Michael Geisler wrote a brilliant essay lacerating that misguided assertion from all sides. I won’t quote from it, since it’s probably already been translated into all of the languages taught here and should be required reading for years to come. Instead, I’ll quote from one of the hundreds of readers who blogged their own eloquent critiques:

“We need to spend more time learning languages, not less, and we need to start in grade school. The fact that people all over the world learn English makes Americans less competitive, not more. When you are hiring for a job and have a selection of people with BAs, MAs, and PhDs, would you pick the guy with just a high school diploma? Of course not. So, if an international company has the option of hiring people who are bilingual or trilingual, why would they pick the monolingual American? Globalization doesn't decrease the need for language study, it increases it. “

But you know all that—that’s why you spent your summer at Middlebury. So what do you do now? Back in 1975, when I was sitting in one of those pews, I wondered the same thing: So what am I actually going to do with this? And based on my experience, my advice to you is—don't overworry it. Stay light on your feet. Recognize, accept and celebrate the reality that what you think you want to do or need to do with your certifiably exceptional interest in foreign languages might take you down a road with some unexpected twists and turns. When I left here 37 years ago, at the age of 21, I headed back home and enrolled in grad school at the University of Michigan. I fully intended to get an M.A., or maybe a Ph.D., in Slavic linguistics. I knew, as many of you know, that the next step toward mastery of the language (in my case, Russian) was to study abroad. There weren’t a lot of programs to choose from in the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, but thanks to the summer I spent here, I managed to get on one of them.

And a funny thing happened during those four months that I spent in Leningrad. I discovered something that fascinated me—even more than the Glagolitic alphabet: the political puzzle of the USSR, a country that put the first satellite and the first man in space but couldn’t provide enough toilet paper or fresh fruit for its citizens. Something very puzzling was going on. And trying to solve that puzzle pulled me away from linguistics and literature and re-focused me on political science and international relations.

Along the way I met my wife Jocelyn, who had traveled a similar path from Middlebury’s Summer Russian School to Leningrad a year or so earlier. We actually met on a US government sponsored exhibition in the Soviet Union, where we worked as Russian-speaking guides demonstrating Polaroid cameras and holograms to Soviet citizens. We got married and joined the State Department as junior diplomats in 1983.

But weren’t finished with languages. For our postings to Sofia and Prague, we spent a year learning Bulgarian, and another year learning Czech. So in the end I did sort of get that graduate degree in applied Slavic Linguistics. And I was fortunate to be chosen as the American ambassador to two countries, Russia and Bulgaria, where I could speak the native language at a level where I felt comfortable enough to give live broadcast interviews, and to conduct my meetings with government officials without interpreters. So I know that Nelson Mandela’s insight is absolutely true: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” 

But a bit of practical advice also seems warranted at commencement time. I’ve spent almost 3,000 classroom hours over the past 45 years studying five different languages (and, as Jocelyn will tell you, trying with mixed success to fake my way through several more), so in closing I offer you five rules as a guide to success—or at least less pain—in learning a language. 

#1. Stay focused. My high school German teacher Mr. Anderson taught me that learning a language is not a hobby—it’s a discipline. Too often when Americans study languages they take two years of Spanish, and then maybe another couple of years of French, and end up with no real facility at all. Don’t dabble in languages. Hone in on the one or two that you’re drawn to, and make its mastery a lifelong obsession.

#2. Go away! When I was a student in Ann Arbor, there was a travel agency with a wonderful sign hanging outside its door. The sign said “Please Go Away.” That’s rule number two. When you are looking at options for study abroad, try to go far, far away, until you are immersed in the language and the culture and you spend days without speaking or hopefully even hearing or seeing English. That means that if you can, you should choose smaller towns and cities to study in and visit. Avoid Paris—discover Nantes. Spend less time in Moscow, and more in Yaroslavl, or Irkutsk.

Rule #3. Rediscover the radio. Everyone learns languages in a different way, but if you want to be able to communicate, the most important input to learning is what you hear. It is now a simple matter to stream the Russian or Farsi or Mandarin equivalent of NPR or the BBC on your smartphone, and your earbuds insulate you from outside distraction. The more you listen, the more you learn, and of course what you are hearing is the best educated native diction you can find.

#4. Watch your language! As all instructors know, after a certain level of proficiency is reached (or sometimes even before), the student’s temptation to try out a few colorful off-color phrases can be irresistible. Resist. As Genevra Gerhart wrote in her classic work The Russian’s World, swearing in a foreign language is like shooting a gun without knowing where the bullets come out. 

#5. Find a practical outlet. Learning a language is a great joy in and of itself, and it broadens the mind and opens many new doors, but few of us can live off of that for the rest of our lives. The value knowing a language—not to mention your job prospects—are enhanced greatly when you pair the language with another discipline. Diplomacy, business, economics, education—the choice is yours, but you need to focus on that choice now. And remember—if you choose diplomacy, the State Department gives you points for knowing a language—and extra credit for a hard language—in the competition for entry-level positions.

I want to offer one final word of appreciation and admiration for the teachers who are here tonight. I think I’ve had close to 20 different foreign language instructors over my many years as a student, and I know the exceptional level of passion and commitment that their craft requires. I want to pay tribute to all of them through special recognition of one of them, probably the best and certainly the most inspirational language teacher I was fortunate to encounter, a woman well known to many of you here today: Aleksandra Grigor’evna Baker. 

Mrs. Baker was my teacher for Intermediate Russian 201 and 202 back in that summer of 1975. As I said, I was 21, with a natural knack for learning languages that had turned me, frankly, into something of a lazy student. When I got here, I wasn’t ready for the rigor of the program. I wasn’t working hard at it, and I started to feel myself slipping. I really wondered, in fact, if I had even made the right choice to come to Middlebury in the first place. We had a test one day on Russian verbs of motion (just about the worst thing to have test on if you’re having a crisis of confidence) —and I absolutely bombed it. I don’t remember taking the test, but I recall vividly when I got it back from Mrs. Baker. I can see the blue mimeographed sheet, I can see her perfect Russian penmanship in red ink, and I remember precisely what she wrote at the top of the page: «Неужели Вы не можете выучить эти слова?» “Do you really mean to tell me you can’t learn these words?” Because she knew that I could. It wasn’t so much that she taught me Russian that summer, although she did that, too. More importantly, she convinced me that I could learn it, and she inspired me to try harder.

That was a pivotal moment in my life, as things turned out. And for me it embodies the spirit—and the soul—of this wonderful and very special place. I thank you again for inviting Jocelyn and me to come back to Middlebury and recapture just a bit of it today, through all of you