Babel’s Lemmings

You, or several of your friends, are studying either Mandarin or Arabic. It’s a fact. Of that pool, the vast majority have undertaken their studies because they see Mandarin and Arabic as useful languages—languages that will set them apart from the crowd, advance them in their careers, and possibly earn them a buck or two. This is silly. Arabic and Mandarin, rather than being the rising world languages, are likely just this season’s posh languages. And is language study worth it—the hours in class stumbling through strange sounds, squiggly lines, the painful dialogues on your imaginary Chinese dating life and Arabic cooking habits—just to be momentarily fashionable? More to the point, can an academic ever really be fashionable? On both counts, probably not.

At this point, it would be understandable if you disagree; it is hard to admit that you may have wasted so many days and dollars of your life. Take in Dickensian fashion, then, a glimpse of the past and a nip to the future and see if it may not change your perspective of the present.

Meet young Thomas. Back in the rip-roaring 1980s, all the kids were doing the moonwalk to some of those wholesome, old-timey tunes and Russian was all the rage in universities. Young and ambitious, Thomas decided—along with so many others—to capitalize on the red fear that had morphed his nation into a chauvinistic ball of nerves by learning Russian. He graduated with a degree in Slavic languages, and as quickly as you can say “Gorbachev” he found himself holding down a simple, yet lucrative, translation position with the State Department.

But the borscht train couldn’t run forever. The USSR became the Russian Federation, which became a cesspool where Westerners feared to tread for nigh upon a decade, and with its collapse went Thomas’ quick-fix cash solution. But State is not known for its speed or its self-conscious internal reviews, and so Thomas was allowed to stay on. But he lost the ear of the Secretary and the limelight of the press corps—he lost it all. And, eventually, not unlike Milton of Office Space, he was relegated to a small desk somewhere under C Street.

Nowadays, Thomas roams the streets of Foggy Bottom, stopping any who will pass to talk about the good ol’ days. Even the bums cast a pitying glance at the onetime translation rock star, now a wrinkled cautionary tale about overstaffing. And every night before climbing into bed alone, Thomas says a little prayer that the Russians will launch a stray missile, attack a Western neighbor, or do something else incredibly stupid so he would once again matter. But nobody calls anymore; nobody cares. It’s a sad life, the life of a failed linguistic fashionista.

Thomas is just one of countless ghosts wandering the Earth, starved for the attention and wealth that having mastered Japanese, Russian or German once brought them. And in a few short years—when we all drive hovercrafts powered by mankind’s good will, when China has been put under a biodome so the rest of the world can escape its toxic fumes, and when oil is, finally, cheap—all the speakers of Mandarin and Arabic will be much the same: hungry ghosts sporting last year’s fashions.

Impossible! Blasphemy! Surely no seeds of such a future can be found in the present! But the horsemen of your linguistic apocalypse draw near. Sure, the State Department still considers Arabic a “Super Critical Needs Language,” but what does that mean? State is notoriously slow to react to the changing world climate—they do not yet understand the concept of Firefox, much less the decline in the utility of Arabic. Note the case of Embassy Baghdad, an employment hub for Arabic speakers. According to a recent Government Accountability Office report, Embassy Baghdad is currently overstaffed and will have to “rightsize” (the greatest euphemism ever for downsizing) approximately half of its staff. Not even the military has a particular need for Arabic, as their 09L program reveals that they have expressed a preference for native speakers since 2003. More than that, their primary interest now lies in Pashto-speaking regions—and guess what language Columbia University doesn’t offer? So it would appear that Arabic is falling out of fashion just as all of your friends are struggling to learn their alif be pes.

As for Mandarin, though, arguing for its futility would be an irresolvable argument for such a brief paper—and hence the author petitions the reader to allow his divorce from the subject. Instead, he simply recommends that readers look into the works of Minxin Pei, Yusheng Huong, Razeen Sally, and Pranab Bardhan. Ultimately, their overarching lesson is clear: China is currently an economic powerhouse, but its long-term sustainability is highly questionable.

But what now? What step to take with our journey at its end? Perhaps you should take up a steady language like Spanish—at least you will be assured a use and not a listless future as a politico-vagrant. Or perhaps you should look to the future, look to reap benefits from another region, one that is, as of now, linguistically unexploited. Or perhaps you should try learning Hausa. That way, when ethnic tensions and radical Islam explodes into a new West African Darfur, you’ll be ready. In you will step, armed with a command of the Hausa language, all set to save the day—the only Hausa expert the government can find. True, it won’t be a language of permanent import, but you’ll corner the market right off the bat, and, in the end, that’s all that really matters: paying off your student loans.

Enjoy your success, you rapacious bastard.