One fall day in 1974, I walked into a Russian language class at Hunter College, one of the Manhattan campuses of the City University of New York public system.
In New York for back-to-back college internships at the literary magazine Paris Review and the New York Times, I chose Hunter because he offered evening classes.
As the editor of my high school newspaper outside of Detroit, I had had a keen interest in current affairs, and no ongoing story was bigger or more consequential than the global superpower rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.
But what brought me to this evening class at Hunter was less heavy: I had just read “Crime and Punishment” by Dostoyevsky. His monumental novel about a lost young man who becomes a murderer was so brilliant that I vowed to read it in Russian one day.
Little did I know then that the decision to master Russian would lead, 15 years later, to my assignment as Moscow correspondent covering the collapse of the Soviet Union.
At that time, I was fluent enough to conduct interviews with Russians in their native language. Shortly after my arrival, Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov died. He had become the most prominent anti-communist dissident, as famous for his political activism as for his science. His death sent an outpouring of grief across the vast country and the queue to see his open coffin stretched for miles. Thousands of Muscovites lined up for hours in the freezing winter cold to pay their last respects.
Other foreign correspondents lined up with their translators to interview the mourners while I could speak with them alone.
Did it make a difference? The Russians I interviewed were touched that we could speak in their own language. More importantly, the translators who worked for the foreign offices were known to be spies, using the coveted positions to file reports to the KGB on the sources and subjects of international journalists. It was clear to me that the Sakharov mourners I interviewed felt more comfortable and were more willing to share their true feelings about him. Many cried as they spoke.
One of the sad ironies of our current times is that in an age where the United States is becoming more diverse and globalization is outsourcing more American jobs, fewer young people are studying foreign languages.
Of the top 10 universities in the nation, according to US News & World Report, only Columbia University requires foreign language study (three years) for admission. My alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley, is one of the few other elite schools that requires it.
And once in college, fewer students are required to demonstrate even basic proficiency in a foreign language to graduate. Only 12% of higher education institutions retain such a mandate, according to a survey conducted last year by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
My experience with Russian shows how acquiring skills at a young age can reap unexpected benefits down the road as life’s winding and surprising path takes us on its mysterious journey.
There are other reasons to study a foreign language. By the time I started Russian, I had taken four years of Spanish classes in my high school – a requirement I would later forget. And I would take an intensive German course while spending a year abroad in Munich.
In a way I didn’t fully appreciate at the time, struggling with other languages made me a better writer in my own language. The grammatical spines of English were less thorny after struggling to learn the six cases in Russian and the four cases in German, which change the form of words to show their functions in sentences. These experiences also enriched my later career as a journalist and book author.
You may not become a journalist and writer like me. Instead, you could become an international lawyer specializing in Chinese investments in the United States, a hot job source these days. You may become a chef or a restaurateur deciphering French recipes. You could become an automotive engineer working for Volvo, BMW or Toyota. You could become a missionary spreading the word in Brazil or India or Congo.
You might find yourself living in a demographically diverse community surrounded by neighbors who speak a dozen languages.
If you think these scenarios are unlikely, you simply haven’t lived long enough to understand the twists and turns of life.
James Rosen is a longtime Washington correspondent who has covered Congress, the White House and the Pentagon. He recently received the top award for column writing from the Society of Professional Journalists.