Written by Roxanne Bauer, Editor-in-Chief and Public Diplomacy Graduate Student
There are many reasons to study a foreign language. Engaging in international dialogue, gathering intelligence, developing trade deals, preparing risk assessments, avoiding war and conflict, and many other activities all require foreign language knowledge. Indeed, in order to do almost any kind of public diplomacy work, the cultural and philosophical character of a target community’s language needs to be understood.
With this in mind, I am studying Urdu at the American Institute of Indian Studies in Lucknow, India as part of the Department of Education’s Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowships program.
The FLAS program has been rewarding in many ways. I can now explain- in Urdu- the difference between various levels of state; the varying conceptions of God in Muslim, Hindu and Sikh traditions; and how to make gulab jamun. Accordingly, developing my skills from the very basic level to the intermediate level has also meant that I have developed a greater understanding of Indian culture and politics.
Additionally, I have also had the privilege of living with a host family and experiencing life the way they do. The family has been incredibly gracious and entertaining. Dinnertime is spent, among other things, discussing local events, international news, and cultural insights.
I have become particularly fond of our host mother because as a former teacher, current businesswoman and mother of four, she has a unique and intelligent perspective. She is a strong advocate for education. After reports were released this summer that detailed India’s slowing economy, she was quick to say that education reform was necessary to decrease poverty, reduce institutionalized corruption and to allocate the country’s resources more fairly. On a personal level, her belief in education was demonstrated as she offered to pay for the school fees of the domestic housekeeper (who happened to be from a different caste and religion). This conversation also revealed how, in a liberal democracy with modern technology, traditional social systems are still in place that help to shape the lifestyle and economy.
Like my host mother, I too, am an advocate for education. This summer has not only included instruction in Urdu, but also in Indian politics, culture, and tradition. I will be able to use this knowledge and experience in my public diplomacy work, as I incorporate it into my planning, analysis and commentary. Effectively working in a country starts with knowing its language and culture, and only after these are understood can governmental and institutional change be sought. If public diplomacy initiatives are expected to work, the basics need to be solid.