David Crisp: Gianforte is just wrong on language proposal


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Speaking on Jan. 20 in Lockwood, Greg Gianforte, flanked by his wife Susan, announced he was running for governor.

An obscure plank in Greg Gianforte’s platform exposes the liberal error at the heart of his campaign for governor.

Gianforte, the founder of RightNow Technologies, gets a lot right. He looks the part, tall and lean and with a haircut that evokes memories of a great Republican hero: Dwight Eisenhower.


David Crisp

He carries himself well and speaks eloquently. His emphasis on job creation is hard to argue with: No Montana politician ever got elected by campaigning to get rid of good, high-paying jobs.

But he goes wrong when he suggests in campaign speeches that he would allow computer science to replace foreign language requirements in schools.

Full disclosure: I have a slow-moving horse in this race. For the last dozen or so years, I have supplemented my pitiful income from the Billings Outpost by teaching German at Montana State University Billings.

Why German? I like to say that it was a statistical anomaly: As an unemployed college dropout in the early ’70s, I had a low draft number and a high score on the language aptitude test. Guten Tag, Deutschland.

I learned enough about language study—throw in some high school Spanish and college French, too—to know that it is nothing like computer science, which I also studied on my own. Computer languages are relentlessly logical and restricted; human languages are quirky and endlessly expansive.

Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates put it this way: “To learn French you must accept that you will be humiliated—you are helpless to stop it. … And this will always be true. No matter how good you get, there will always be someone sneering at your awful accent. You are helpless to change those facts. They simply must be endured.”

Or, as one of my most diligent students once put it, “Learning German has been a humbling experience for me.”

Once I cobbled together a take-home final for second-year students and, worried that I might have made a hash of it, I asked, “You didn’t find anything really stupid in there, did you?”

“Just me,” one student replied.

Humility is not a bad thing to learn in college. We should teach more of it.

One of my most common responses to beginning students’ struggles with German grammar is this: “That’s very logical. And totally wrong.”

But I also try to point out that those are the best errors to make, a clear sign that the student is learning the fundamental logic of the language while painstakingly chipping away at the dozens, if not hundreds, of exceptions to the rules.

I tell reluctant students, “You are going to have to make at least 10,000 mistakes before you learn this language, and the sooner you make them, the better.”

Americans deal with the perversities of English so routinely that we scarcely notice them. Why are “one” and “won” pronounced the same? How can “blue,” “slew” and “slough” possibly rhyme?

But somehow, magic happens. As Coates puts it, “And yet I learned the syntax, the vocabulary, the sounds. And I came to like the sound. I got fluency and then fraternity. I walked outside. And then I got love.”

By presuming that the cold logic of computer science is an adequate substitute for the beauty of language, Gianforte makes the same error that two prominent conservatives saw in the revolutionary movements of France and Russia.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, writing 50 years before the Russian Revolution actually occurred, warned that socialism would fail because it did not account for the human spirit, the inexhaustible range of beliefs and eccentricities that go into being human. Humanity cannot be reduced to a set of principles, he argued.

Writing about the French Revolution, conservative Edmund Burke made similar points.

“The legislators who framed the ancient republics,” he wrote, “knew that their business was too arduous to be accomplished with no better apparatus than the metaphysics of an undergraduate and the mathematics and arithmetic of an exciseman. They had to do with men, and they were obliged to study human nature.”

In a paragraph that sounds eerily predictive of the 2016 American presidential election, he also wrote, “What your politicians think the marks of a bold, hardy genius are only proofs of a deplorable want of ability. By their violent haste, and their defiance of the process of Nature, they are delivered over blindly to every projector and adventurer, to every alchemist and empiric. … Your legislators seem to have taken their opinions of all professions, ranks, and offices from the declamations and buffooneries of satirists … .”

Here’s what he meant: If you think Donald Trump is the solution to what’s wrong with America, then maybe you are what’s wrong with America.

Gianforte, for all his business acumen, has his own quirky beliefs. His position on discrimination is incoherent, and his donations to creationist outfits imply that his commitment to science is open to negotiation.

He is living proof that life cannot be reduced to a series of ones and zeroes. He, and Americans, could profit from more exposure to the felicities and frustrations of foreign languages. They would learn the innocence and open-mindedness that language learning requires, to be able to say, as the Germans do, “My name is rabbit, I live in the forest, and I don’t know anything about anything.”

You see, there really was a German jurist whose name translates as “hare,” and he really did say that, or something close to it, back in the 19th century. And somehow it stuck, and it became another clumsily nailed board in the jerry-rigged structure that underlies the beautiful and complex contours of human language.

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