Why Go to College (2)

Learning to think meant tailoring my thinking to the suitable mode. The study of languages proved most useful, because I discovered that the internal logic of one language does not apply to another. And families of languages tend to share some rules but not others. Romance languages, that grew out of Latin, are the most alike. Germanic languages that I know (German and English) likewise use similar grammatical rules. And all western languages resemble one another in their basic grammatical structure. But no two follow exactly the same rules.

Asian languages I know, Vietnamese and Chinese, share an internal logic that is dramatically alien to western languages. In these languages, there are no parts of speech as we westerners understand them. In principle, any single syllable can function as a verb, noun, adjective, or adverb. There are no pronouns in the western sense. Meaning derives from combining syllables into compounds and from word order and context. And both languages are tonal—the rising and falling of the voice completely changes the meaning of a syllable.

I learned those languages partly by chance. After I finished college, I enlisted in the army to avoid being drafted. The army sent me to language school for an intensive year’s study of a language I had never heard of, Vietnamese—in those days we called Vietnam French Indochina. Then I was assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA). In my off hours, I studied Chinese at Georgetown University. When my enlistment finished, NSA immediately hired me as a GS-11, an unusually high pay grade for a new hire—GS-5 and GS-7 were the standard—and sent me to Vietnam.

In short, my college degree helped in getting a high pay grade, but it was my facility with languages—and my ability to think in those languages— that led NSA to hire me.

A few years later, I decided that I didn’t know enough and that my brain needed more training. So I signed up for graduate courses at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. I ended up earning a master’s in Government and doctorate in Public Administration. In the process, I learned that wasn’t so dumb after all. I easily outflanked my rival students and got straight A grades. And my ability to think grew yet again.

More tomorrow.

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