Middlebury Language Schools 2013 Convocation Remarks

In this excerpt from his 2013 Convocation remarks, delivered on June 23 and July 3, Michael Geisler, vice president for Language Schools, Schools Abroad, and Graduate Programs, reflects on the importance of language study in a global society.

In Michael Frayn's 1966 novel The Russian Interpreter, one of the protagonists, a businessman by the name of Gordon Proctor-Gould, makes his living as a kind of go-between for academic and government institutions in the (then) Soviet Union and the West to advance better understanding between the two sides of the Cold War. However, Proctor-Gould specializes not in finding the usual suspects (artists, officially recognized authors, or journalists) but ordinary people with a knack for communication and an interesting story to tell. As he explains to Paul Manning, the novel’s other principal character:

“There’s a tremendous demand for ordinary people. The press and television in Britain and America are crying out for good human material. You might think it’s strange at first sight, but producers and editors find it very difficult to meet people outside the entertainment industry. They simply don’t come across them.

"It’s easy enough for them to get hold of professional personalities, of course—novelists, pop singers, beauty queens, politicians, that kind of person. But they want to get away from the professionals. They want to get at the real flesh-and-blood people who make up the other 99 percent of the world. There’s a market all right. And of course there’s a plentiful source of supply. All you need is a middleman to bring the two together.” 

And Proctor-Gould then outlines his revolutionary idea: “You see, Paul, I think professional personalities aren’t the only interesting people around. I believe that everyone is of interest to the public. I believe that everyone has a story to tell, a point of view that’s worth putting across, a personality that the public would be interested to explore.”

If you want to find ordinary people with interesting life stories to share, you actually need to talk to ordinary people. A lot of them.

The idea that perfectly ordinary people have an interesting story to share or have led far more interesting lives than we might otherwise believe, is a philosophy that I believe many of us would sign on to—if for no other reason than the fact that each one of us knows how incredibly fascinating our own life experiences would be for others if only we could get them to be interested in listening to our stories!

Obviously, the potentially very significant over-supply of ordinary people who believe they have a story that must be shared with the world requires a certain amount of filtering, not unlike the early stages of American Idol or America’s Funniest Home Videos. That is how Proctor-Gould earns his living. As he himself modestly confesses to Paul, he has a knack for finding people who not only think they have an interesting story to tell (that’s pretty much everybody), but whose interesting story will actually be considered entertaining by others, in part because these relatively rare individuals are also great communicators. 

So, in his business travels through the 1960s Soviet Union, Gordon Proctor-Gould seeks to meet as many ordinary Russians with interesting stories to share and an innate ability to communicate them as he can find. 

There is only one handicap Proctor-Gould has to overcome in his pursuit of this praiseworthy and (as we know from the success of American Idol) lucrative scheme. Unfortunately, if you want to find ordinary people with interesting life stories to share, you actually need to talk to ordinary people. A lot of them.

Even if we set aside the question of how successful a member of the educated British elite, like Gordon Proctor-Gould, will actually be at interacting with ordinary people under any circumstances, there is still one major hurdle he has to take: Gordon Proctor-Gould does not speak a word of Russian!  And it is exceedingly difficult to find ordinary people with interesting stories to tell if you can’t talk to them.

This is where Paul Manning comes in, the other protagonist of the novel, and the Russian interpreter alluded to in the book's title. Paul is doing research towards his PhD at Moscow University. He is himself an ordinary man, but apparently one without an interesting story to tell (at least as of the beginning of the book), since Proctor-Gould makes it clear to him that somebody like Paul would never be selected to “dance with the stars” of British or American talk shows. However, he does have two attributes that make him a very valuable employee in Proctor-Gould's eyes: He is completely fluent in Russian—and he is British.

For somewhere along the line Proctor-Gould has realized that, if he is to converse with ordinary Russians, attempting to do so in English will radically and artificially reduce the available pool of ordinary people—in other words he needs an interpreter. However, he doesn't want to avail himself of the local supply of Russian interpreters who speak English, because he fears that their own cultural perceptions and the resultant translations will somehow pollute the purity of the sample of ordinary people, so that the representatives of the “real Russia” he might present to audiences in England or America might be skewed towards some indigenous Russian concept of “the Russian soul.”

Proctor-Gould (or Michael Frayn, the author, who is fluent in Russian and worked as an interpreter himself before becoming a journalist and award-winning writer) actually makes a very important point here. When you rely on local interpreters, even assuming that they know what they are doing and don’t have an agenda of their own, they will bring their own cultural perceptions to the table about what is and what is not relevant, and that will inevitably skew the information you will glean from native informants. 

On the other hand, it never seems to occur to Proctor-Gould that a British translator might come with his own cultural blind spots and filters and would thus also pollute the sample of ordinary Russians.

Despite the good services of his interpreter, Proctor-Gould blunders on, falling head over heels in love with a manipulative Russian woman. Just as Proctor-Gould does not speak any Russian, the Russian woman does not speak any English. The results, while certainly hilarious, are not exactly of the “me Tarzan—you Jane” variety we know from Hollywood romances.

First, there is the complicating factor that Raya, the Russian woman, originally started an affair with Paul Manning, the interpreter, only to drop him promptly once she meets Proctor-Gould. This leads to some very painful translation exercises for the interpreter in the early stages of the new relationship, until he finally decides to leave the two lovebirds to themselves, without the benefit of his linguistic mediation.

Once that happens, Proctor-Gould is helpless in the face of Raya’s strange demonstrations of her affections for him, which manifest themselves primarily in stealing any and all items of value she can find in his hotel room, from little trinkets given to him by official Russian hosts to his beloved tins of Nescafé, to the gift books he carries back and forth between his British and Russian contacts.  It turns out that the frantic sign language he resorts to doesn't get at the complexity of Raya’s motives for walking off with Proctor-Gould's possessions each morning only to return at night as if robbing one’s lover blind were the most natural form of intercultural communication.

Proctor-Gould's attempts to recover some of the things Raya has stolen eventually takes the novel down the path of a classic Cold War spy thriller, but that is not the point I am interested in today. Rather, I want to draw your attention to the deftness with which the award-winning author of Copenhagen and Noises Off zeroes in on a problem which, nearly half a century after this book was written and more than 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, has lost none of its urgency, even—and I would argue especially—in a global economy.

You cannot understand what ordinary people who live in another country care about, what their needs are, what their values are, unless you understand how they think. And you will not understand how they think unless you have access to their networks, and for the vast majority of us, the most powerful network that shapes our thoughts is not Facebook or Twitter, but the medium that powers not only Facebook and Twitter but the overwhelming majority of all of our transactions with others, day in and day out—and that is the language we speak. 

To be sure, there are many people out there who would like to skip that step because, as Proctor-Gould says about himself, they are “just no linguists.” Others, like former Secretary of the Treasury and former president of Harvard University Larry Summers, would have us believe that there is no need to study other peoples’ languages, that we don't need to engage them or converse with them, unless they can speak to us in English.

Therefore, as Summers suggests in a January 20, 2012, New York Times article, there is no need for Americans to study other people’s languages. Presumably, in the world that Professor Summers envisions, all those billions of people around the globe who do not speak English, or who speak it only imperfectly, are not worth our time and attention.

Well, the world Professor Summers lives in is not a world I recognize, and it is certainly not a world I inhabit and I would hazard a guess that it is also not the world you live in, or you would not be here today! 

Professor Summers’s brave new world of “global English” is not the world the more than 1.2 billion people live in who speak Mandarin Chinese. It is not the world that the 416 million people around the globe live in who speak Spanish (far more people, by the way, than native speakers of English, who clock in at a distant third, with 328 million!). It is not the world bestselling authors like John Le Carré or Michael Frayn live in, since many of their novels and plays draw on their personal experiences in Russia or Germany, countries whose languages they speak. It is not the world inhabited by American actors Kevin Kline (who recently acted in his first film shot entirely in French), Jodie Foster (who is fluent in French), or Sandra Bullock (who is fluent in German). 

It is not the world of foreign news correspondents like Richard Engel (NBC), who is fluent in Arabic, French, and Spanish, or Clarissa Ward (CBS), who speaks French and Italian and also has some command of Russian and Arabic. They rely on their language and cultural skills to bring home to American television viewers, night after night, the excitement of the Arab Spring and the horrors of the Syrian civil war.

Professor Summers’s world of global English is also not the world that people who are serious about international commerce live in, because these people realize that, if you want to sell American cars in Germany, for instance, you need to understand what Germans want in a car, because Germans know a thing or two about making good automobiles. ... And most Germans I know don’t talk about the features of their BMWs or Mercedes Benzes or VWs in English. 

In a recent Schumpeter column, “Davos Man and his defects,” The Economist’s management editor Adrian Wooldridge takes issue with a particular brand of globalization represented by many participants in the annual World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, pointing to the foggy radar screens of many of the “global leaders” trekking to Davos year after year, reminding readers that “many of the bankers and politicians caught dozing by the financial crisis were regulars at Davos.” Why were they caught by surprise? Because in their fixation with global dimensions the entire world has become one large and undifferentiated flyover country in their minds:

“People whose jobs require constant whizzing through airports often overestimate the extent of globalisation. Most other folk live in the same country all their lives. Most trade occurs within national borders. Nearly all politics is local. Company bosses who fail to notice this may underestimate political risks or ignore cultural differences, and such errors may prove disastrous. The best global leaders need to immerse themselves in local cultures.”

And it seems that the business community is at long last waking up to the need for combining global bandwidth with local knowledge and cross-cultural negotiating skills. As Wooldridge wrote in his Schumpeter column, “Harvard Business School obliges its students to spend time in other countries. Companies increasingly expect their high-flyers to spend time running far-flung subsidiaries. Henkel, a German chemical-maker, insists that executives live in at least two different countries before being considered for promotion. Nestlé, a Swiss food company, boasts executive board members from eight different countries.”

Why did eBay and the NSA decide to site these facilities in Utah? According to NPR, it happened for one simple reason: Utah has the highest percentage of foreign language speakers in the nation.

None of this is possible without speaking the language. Gordon Proctor-Gould shipwrecks with his ambitious project to bring ordinary Russian people to the attention of Western media audiences because he does not understand that he has no access to their minds, to the way they think and dream and plan their lives, without first understanding their language.

But let’s give the man a break. At least he realized that you don't “get” Russia if you don't “get” ordinary Russian citizens. And you don't get ordinary Russian citizens, or ordinary Brazilian citizens, or ordinary Italian citizens unless you speak their language!

On March 12 of last year NPR’s All Tech Considered featured a report about the booming economy in the state of Utah. At the end of the piece, under the heading “Utah's Secret Economic Weapon,” All Tech Considered reported that eBay had just moved a big call center from the Philippines back to Salt Lake City, creating 350 jobs in the process. At the same time, the National Security Agency decided to build a $1.2 billion data center there.

Why did eBay and the NSA decide to site these facilities in Utah? According to NPR, it happened for one simple reason: Utah has the highest percentage of foreign language speakers in the nation.

In one of his satirical essays, the German writer Erich Kästner once wrote about people who, at the end of the Stone Age, put their foot down and declared: “No, we don’t want to go into the Bronze Age!” Similarly today, there are many people like Larry Summers out there, who seem to be saying: “No, I don't want to live in a global society!” History will move on without them, as it always has.

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