A Wyoming legislative committee declares foreign languages to be subversive!

That wasn’t the headline, but one wonders if that is what is obsessing legislators to remove foreign language courses from the curriculum required to apply for a Hathaway Scholarship. The Hathaway Scholarship was originally viewed as a means to educate deserving Wyoming students, but it has slightly morphed into an incentive to keep smart Wyoming kids in Wyoming.

My paralegal moved to Wyoming for reasons unrelated to the Hathaway Scholarship but it only took about five minutes in-state for her to realize that this could be the big ticket for her kids. Whereupon she redoubled her efforts to make sure these kids get good grades.

The Hathaway Scholarship program is hugely incentivizing, to corrupt a perfectly useful noun into an irritating verb.

But, to what ends should this scholarship be an incentive?

I spent two years in Joe Motica’s Latin class in Johnson County High School, emerging from this seemingly irrelevant diversion to understand where the English language came from, and how Italian and French and Spanish are related to our language. Learning about Roman history and culture was an added bonus.

Today I have clients who speak Spanish and Italian as their first languages, and some who speak several languages as needed in business. Some of my clients  work in China and others teach English as a second language in our community. These clients are not on the margins of the economy; they are mainstream.

Food products in Wyoming grocery stores have labels in English and Spanish. The same products in northern Montana and Canada, and some of them here, have labels in English and French.

Back to the question: Why should Wyoming high schools teach Spanish or French or Latin or Urdu or Farsi?

Here is The Sage Grouse’s list of reasons:

1.  Learning someone else’s perspective helps you understand and appreciate your own perspective.

2.  Learning the language of people who own most of your country’s debt could be useful if the occasion should arise that you need to talk to them.

3.  Learning European language helps us understand the common cultural origins of our religious and political evolution. Studying Swahili would further broaden the range of what is “common.” After all, we all came from Africa, we share 99.9 percent of genes with inhabitants of Africa, we share language as a means of communication, and sharing anything is a useful means of overcoming stereotypical barriers to understanding that we are all people with common goals.

4.  How do you curse at an international soccer game if you do not study foreign language?

5.  Learning language is an intellectual challenge. Learning math and chemistry is mostly memorization. Stretching the mind at a young age is good. Turning off Facebook for a few hours is good. Study language instead. Declining nouns and conjugating verbs in a foreign language will stretch your mind.

6.  Language ability can be a valuable career booster. Simultaneous translating at the United Nations, or the jail at Guantanamo, or in China, or in Japan, or in Saudi Arabia, could pay much better than driving a haul truck.

No one has been reported to offer a good reason to eliminate language training as a qualification for the Hathaway scholarship.

Rednecks might oppose study of Arab or African or Persian languages as coddling our enemies. Rednecks might confuse opposition to illegal trans-Mexico immigration with opposition to learning in our high schools. Hopefully such ignorance would not affect enlightened public policy.

Wyoming is full of modern technical education schools which provide wonderful opportunities for Wyoming students to train for high-quality jobs in industry. Offering low in-state resident tuition to these institutions is a great idea.

The Hathaway Scholarships are designed for a different purpose; to entice qualified students to get 4-year degrees as preparation for business careers or to go on to law school, medical school, pharmacy school, nursing programs, etc. I want those kids to not be embarrassed when they show up at Creighton or Columbia or Harvard Medical School and then need to take remedial language courses. Doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, scientists frequently deal with Latin terms.

Of course, we could dumb down the curriculum in Wyoming to assure that our students will never be embarrassed at Columbia or Harvard, because they will never go there.

Readers might think: “The Sage Grouse has gone elitist on us.” Not so fast.

Many of my clients and friends wear Carhartts and work boots. They drive one-ton work trucks, not BMWs. They hold advanced degrees from the College of Hard Knocks. They manage work crews during good times and bad, during good weather and bad, and make the payroll. These folks, men and women, don’t need language skills. They know what they need, and sometimes they need me.

I have participated in the high school cooperative education program for many years, hiring bright high school students to help with errands and filing. Most of them grow into bigger responsibilities, and several have become multi-tasking legal secretaries before going off to college. Nothing in my life is more fun than watching these students mature. I love this.

These kids are destined for a different role than running an oil field service rig or driving a mine truck. These are the kids for whom the Hathaway Scholarship was created. These are the kids who will confront Japanese and Chinese and European business managers, their lawyers and lobbyists. These are the kids who need foreign language skills. Shouldn’t the Hathaway Scholarship be the spark plug incentive for such skills?

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  1. It would be ironic if the Hathaway program dropped the language requirement because the University is pouring huge amounts of effort into its international studies programs and trying to make the school a more global place. (For example: the Cheney International Center.) Any high school worth its salt already requires at least two years of foreign language to graduate. While the Grouse is talking about Wyoming kids learning latin, or Farsi, the reality is that most Wyoming schools only teach Spanish, and French or German if the kids are lucky. Having stronger language requirements for the Hathaway, and more varied language options both in high school and at the University would only benefit Wyoming’s youth. Even the roughest oilfield worker could find value in having foreign language skills.