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Language

The Rockefeller Foundation’s (RF) work in the humanities refocused in the early and mid-1930s in a more “democratic and inclusive” direction, in the words of Raymond Fosdick.[1] Communication, especially across diverse cultures, drove several RF initiatives. Language lies at the core of intercultural understanding. Thus, the teaching of languages assumed a prominent place in the portfolio of the Humanities Division, with particular attention paid to East Asia and Latin America.  In time the RF's interest in language would undergird its post-World War II area studies work.

W. Chapin Huntington, Editor, Slavic Translation Projects of the American Council of Learned Societies, Washington (D.C.), 1951

W. Chapin Huntington, Editor, Slavic Translation Projects of the American Council of Learned Societies, Washington (D.C.), 1951

Looking East

Chinese and Japanese were rarely studied in the United States before the 1930s. With the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) taking a leading role, training in these languages was centered first at the Library of Congress and then fostered at summer institutes conducted at Harvard University, Columbia University, the University of California, Berkeley, and Cornell University. Russian was soon added to the roster of languages taught at these institutes, and by 1939 Turkish and Arabic were also taught. On the eve of World War II a dozen academic institutions were teaching at least one of these languages.

Dr. Faris presiding at seminar in Arabic studies, Beirut (Lebanon), 1949

Dr. Faris presiding at seminar in Arabic studies, Beirut (Lebanon), 1949

Innovations in language instruction were fostered by these training programs and the Humanities Division’s support for basic linguistic research. Of particular interest were techniques that accelerated the pace of language learning. Having helped to develop short, intensive courses in a number of languages, the RF was able to make a significant contribution to the U.S. Army’s war effort. During the war many essential languages, including Burmese, Persian, Malayan, and Tibetan, were taught using textbooks, dictionaries, and glossaries of technical terms whose creation was initiated by the Foundation.

US Army using the intensive language program to learn foreign languages, Washington (D.C.), 1944

US Army using the intensive language program to learn foreign languages, Washington (D.C.), 1944

Looking South

Growing domestic attention to Latin America in the 1930s led to RF projects that ranged across many professional domains, from archaeology and anthropology to library and archival administration. Fellowships encouraged the exchange of graduate students and researchers among the countries of the western hemisphere. Participants included teachers of both English and Spanish whose focus tended to be on new methods of teaching these languages (as well as the indigenous languages of the Americas).

The primary challenge of acquiring any new language as an instrument of intercultural communication was simplification. A Trustees Bulletin explained that “the task in each instance was that of stripping the language to its essentials, organizing these essentials in a logical system, and communicating the system to learners.”[2]  RF staff members eagerly embraced the work of I.A. Richards and C.K. Ogden of Cambridge University, whose research had led them to invent a system of teaching Basic English that relied on a vocabulary of merely 850 words and a simplified grammar. 

Basic English

To RF officers working in China, Basic English (or simply “Basic,” as they termed it) held promise as a means of drawing China into more active participation with the West. Officers considered China linguistically isolated from the West and in many ways intellectually stagnant because of this isolation – advancements in Western science and social inquiry did not get communicated in or translated into Chinese. Richards’ Orthological Institute of China launched a Basic English campaign in northern China. In hindsight, its experimental approach had some far-fetched features, including efforts to translate literary works by Jonathan Swift and George Bernard Shaw into Basic English, along with poster campaigns and loudspeakers blaring English lessons in urban streets and rural villages. Despite its mixed successes, the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 ended the program.

Basic English Pamphlet Created by the Orthological Institute, (Cambridge, England), 1934

Basic English Pamphlet Created by the Orthological Institute, (Cambridge, England), 1934

Importantly, the RF never viewed communication as a one-way street. Although English was widely considered the language of international exchange, RF officers rightly recognized the need for Americans to master other languages, even obscure ones. In the 1930s and 1940s RF engineered many improvements in language teaching and expanded the range of languages that Americans could learn. This work laid a strong foundation for the post-war commitment of Rockefeller and other foundations to area studies.

Language and Our Schools

In more recent decades, the Foundation’s interest in language studies has continued with its grants for translation projects, and support for initiatives at the Modern Language Association, the ACLS and other professional associations, and academic institutions. In the early 1980s, following the publication of “The Humanities in American Life,” a Foundation-sponsored commission report which urged attention to humanities instruction in the schools, RF officers launched the Rockefeller Foundation Fellowships for Foreign Language Teachers in the High Schools. For a decade, a hundred middle and high school teachers were competitively chosen annually for a summer of study or travel of their own design. School and community projects building on their experiences were to follow. The program was intended to showcase the importance of the teaching profession as well as to improve their classroom work.


[1] The Rockefeller Foundation, Annual Report 1937 (New York: The Rockefeller Foundation, 1937) 50. (Link to PDF on Rockefeller Foundation Website)

[2] The Rockefeller Foundation Trustees’ Monthly Bulletin, March, 1940, 4.

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