At the risk of seeming terribly old-fashioned or even cantankerous, I would have to answer this question by lamenting that it needs to be asked at all. I know it is a real question and one that—given the state of language instruction and acquisition in the United States— is posed with increasing urgency. It is a sign of the times and not an encouraging one. A liberal arts curriculum that does not have language study at its center makes no sense to me. We spend a lot of time in the academy seeking diversity and attending to difference. How can we hope to do that without teaching the languages in which other cultures flourished and understood themselves? And 'ad kamah ve-kamah (how much more so) is this true of Jewish Studies. Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, or the languages used by Jews in any of the lands and times of their existence seem to me absolutely essential if we are to know something about the civilizations they created and lived within.
In her story "Envy, or Yiddish in America" Cynthia Ozick reminded us that Elijah the Prophet is not the same as Eliohu hanovi and Bible Lands is quite different from eretz yisroel. There are an infinite number of similar examples. It is not just that one person's nakba (catastrophe) is another's milhemet ha-'azma'ut (War of Independence), offering antithetical perspectives on the same event, but that even excellent translations have different resonances because the source and target languages are directed toward and understood by distinct audiences. Surely, how we name things matters. To Ozick's reminder, we might add that Wissenschaft means more than "knowledge," yiddishkeyt more than Jewishness, and that Shoah, Khurbn, and Holocaust are not quite synonyms or translations. That kind of understanding cannot happen without language study.