JANUARY 23, 1951
HYDE PARK, Monday—I had a most interesting talk Saturday night for the second time with young Dr. Ranier Hildebrandt, who is in this country with a small group to study American civil liberties. I thought his command of English was really remarkable, but he told me that when he first arrived he made some very bad mistakes.
For instance, when he was talking about prisons in Germany he could use the same word as was used for kitchen. But when he translated that into English and said the prisoners were in the kitchen he saw blank expressions on the faces before him. He realized then that since most of his public speeches were about prisons under Hitler in Germany and prisons in the Russian-controlled territories under the present Communist regime he had to find out very quickly the word commonly used in our country for prisons!
He said he also had no idea what people meant when they talked about schedules. But when he went to the University of Minnesota and found that in three days he had made 12 speeches he learned very quickly what a schedule meant and has never forgotten it since.
Dr. Hildebrandt is a very courageous and intelligent young man. I have a feeling that we could learn something from the attitudes of people who have lived so close to the whole Russian situation and, before that, who lived constantly in the shadow and fear of Hitler.
When Dr. Hildebrandt was talking to me about his difficulties with the English language, I could not help thinking about the difficulties most young Americans have with any foreign language. There are few students who can speak fluently in any language other than their own. One reason is that the parents in many families that are comparatively new in our country make some effort to get their children to continue to speak the language of their native country. So far as we are concerned, I think the reason we are slow to pick up foreign languages is that within the United States you can travel so many miles in any direction without needing to use any language other than English. When we go south to Mexico we should discover the value of knowing Spanish. If we are going to travel in the Province of Quebec, French will be useful, except that in spots they will look upon us with some disapproval for they have a sort of patois which makes it possible for them to understand the French language but which makes it quite impossible for us to understand what they are saying.
An article in the magazine section of The New York Times speaks of the need for fluent linguists on the Voice of America broadcasts or in the information and educational sections of our embassies in different parts of the world. There are also many special commissions and experts in various fields who can handle the work in their particular speciality but who cannot handle the language and need someone to go along to do the interpreting. These are all new opportunities for young people and modern languages should become an increasingly popular study.