By Scott E. Womack, Ed. D. – Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army (Retired),
I noted with concern the recent recommendation by the administration of West Virginia University (WVU) to not only cease offering foreign language majors, but to also eliminate the entire Department of World Languages. This is a matter of national security that places WVU outside those institutions that provide vital services to our citizens by serving in positions that depend on the ability to clearly communicate in a foreign language and effectively interact with cultures different from our own.
Most U.S. Military special operations forces must have a working knowledge of the language in the region in which they operate, and all foreign area officers, diplomats, humanitarian aid workers, and intelligence personnel must have a thorough knowledge of it. This cannot be gained by “on the job” training. All of the U.S. Military’s Service Academies (West Point, the Naval Academy, the Coast Guard Academy, the Air Force Academy) have maintained robust foreign language programs since their founding for this reason. These are not bastions of “liberal” ideology but recognize the value that foreign language instruction brings to combat leaders operating in places that do not share our language or culture.
On several occasions during my service as a U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer terrorists received the justice they deserved and U.S. Citizens were safely evacuated from unstable areas without having to deploy U.S. Military combat forces. It was the ability to speak the local language and effectively interact with the local culture that enabled these operations to occur for pennies on the dollar and with no risk to our own military personnel.
The book Culture Shock, published by the Foreign Area Officer Association in 2022 contains many examples of these types of operations including one of my own. Exposure to Latin in high school and German in college gave me the tools to learn whatever language I needed to execute missions of this type later in my career. It is for this reason I chose to teach world languages and sponsor the Model UN Program at James Monroe High School after retiring from the Army.
Where will WVU students who desire to serve their country in the areas of intelligence, diplomacy, humanitarian action, and the military receive the language and cultural instruction they need to even get their feet in the door? Closer to home, how will WVU graduates hoping to engage with foreign businesses interested in coming to the U.S. overcome the disadvantage they will be under as their peers have the skills to effectively engage with other languages and cultures? How will WVU students of history or contemporary affairs accurately grasp events in parts of the world that do not speak English or share our culture? If the answer is “AI,” who is going to inform the AI to place its technically correct translations into a cultural context?
It is sad to see West Virginia’s “flagship” university losing relevance in areas as vital as national security, international business, and international affairs.