Late last week I drove over to Lawrence, Kansas to attend the day-and-a-half-long conference/birthday party marking the 50th Anniversary of KU’s Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies (CREES). Formally constituted in 1960 or, perhaps, 1961 (who’s counting?), KU CREES is among the longest running of the nation’s Russian/East European area centers that emerged in the wake of Sputnik’s launch. Since 1965, it’s been a National Resource Center offering language training, degree-granting programs, and serving as a resource for K-12 teachers, post-secondary educators, business, media, government, and military.
The crux of the conference involved a series of presentations by KU CREES alumni and current faculty focusing on the Center’s past, present, and future. Guest speakers included one of the Center’s founding members, Richard De George (KU Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, of Russian and East European Studies, and of Business Administration), and several of its most prominent graduates, including John C. Reppert (Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall Center for Security Studies), Thomas Wilhelm (Director of the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas), and Glen Howard (President of The Jamestown Foundation).
As one would expect for an event such as this, a good deal of time was devoted to extolling KU’s considerable accomplishments in promoting the study of all things Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian. Speakers also focused remarks on the continuing relevance of an area-studies approach to fostering and sustaining knowledge of the world beyond America’s borders. The most striking aspect of the presentations, however, was a recurring meme that cut across each one of the conference’s dozen or so talks: the vital importance of studying foreign language. Every one of the event’s featured guests (and the vast majority of attendees) owe their current stations in life in no small part to the fact that during their educational career they seized upon the opportunity to not only study, but to master, one or more foreign languages.
Setting aside liberal arts agit-prop regarding the inherent, humanistic value of knowing another culture’s language, there are immense “practical” advantages to be gained from acquiring language skills: from raising one’s standardized test scores, to broadening employment opportunities, to significantly improving fluency in one’s native language. Students looking to get the most “return on investment” in their education would be hard-pressed to do better than investing time and energy mastering a foreign tongue.
It’s not easy. Depending on the target language it can be very difficult and time-consuming. Despite myriad “advances” in instructional technology the acquisition of a foreign language still boils down to a great deal of memorization and repetitive practice. But it is far from impossible. (I started my own language training in Russian relatively late — during my sophomore year at KU).
It’s the one piece of advice I have constantly given students during the course of my teaching career. If you learn nothing else in school — learn a foreign language!