Language Learning: More than Economic Opportunity

An unpublished article for The Daily Cardinal

I wrote this article as a features contributor for the student newspaper The Daily Cardinal at the end of the 2011 spring semester.  For various reasons it never went to print.

I think this is as appropriate as any a forum to publish this article.

I should preface with my intentions though, if they are not already clear: I believe everybody should attempt to learn a foreign language, ideally with the goal of someday gaining some amount of competency or fluency.  However I don’t think we should confine ourselves to traditional or economically important languages (French, Spanish, and Mandarin and German or Italian for example).  It would be wonderful to see more encouragement to study lesser-learned languages (why not Dutch or Turkish, Thai, Czech or Arabic).

We should strive to build a truly global community, and that means living in a polyglot world.

Here’s the article:

On the twelfth floor of Van Hise, Japanese language professor Junko Mori sits in her office.  A collection of artifacts from two decades as an educator surround her desk: video tapes of old Japanese TV shows, posters and prints of cherry blossom art, and staring from a self above her peers a little Pikachu doll.

This little Pikachu is more than just a light-hearted decoration; it is a meaningful little icon that is a celebration of what learning another language means for her: the opportunity to connect with another culture.

“Animation at the surface level is very fun, and that is a great motivation,” Prof. Mori said.  “I really appreciate that [the students] have these personal connections…even looking at the Pokémon, if that is the way into a foreign language, anything will do.”

Learning a foreign language has many practical uses in business, academia, and politics.  While it is a good idea to learn a foreign language for these reasons, many foreign language educators recognize that there are a variety of reasons a person should study another language at some point.

According to German professor and that department’s undergraduate adviser Mark Louden, taking a foreign language in college is a smart way for students, especially freshman, to make friends and get to know their peers in a classroom setting.

“They [foreign language classes] are some of the few classes you are in a small group, you talk, you get to know instructors and fellow students…a list of top ten pieces of advice for incoming freshman includes ‘take a foreign language’, because you’ll enjoy it the most,” Prof. Louden said.

In addition, studying a foreign language helps a person understand their native language better.  Even if a person only takes a few years of another language and never gains fluency, that person’s language art skills in their native tongue will still improve.

“Sensitivity of how language works is heightened,” Prof. Louden said.  “Children who know even a little bit of a foreign language do better in the language arts, and their performance in English will probably be better.”

Improved language arts skills are a long-term advantage for a person.  Even if somebody remains unable to speak a second language, communication is vital when speaking one’s native language.

“If your language arts skills are sharpened it means you can communicate better which translates to success in the work place.  If you can’t explain something concisely orally that is a huge problem,” Prof. Louden said citing an often-overlooked practical advantage to studying a second language.

Understanding other people and other cultures is perhaps the most meaningful and significant benefit of studying another language.  The ability to speak another language means a person can connect on a very personal level with native speakers of another language.

“It is a sort of truism and cliché, but languages do bring people together,” Louden said.

Developing an understanding of different cultures and connecting with different parts of the world is a result of knowing a language other than your own.  According to Prof. Mori you can learn various things by using your own language, but you can learn even more by knowing another language, thus expanding your knowledge of the world.

This is a sentiment shared by French professor Jan Miernowski: “Without a foreign language people are not able to understand the complexities of the world.  With only one language people only have one way of thinking of the world and with multiple languages people multiply this capacity.”

In an increasingly global world, the practical importance of understanding and being able to speak a second language or possibly more is growing.  More people need to speak multiple languages to conduct business within the international market place.

Prof. Mori points out that knowledge of a foreign business partner’s native tongue prevents them from using it as “secret code” when conducting business.

According to Prof. Louden, strong personal connections in business develop when one has the ability to communicate in the language of their business partners. “Even at German companies, you can work with Germans who all speak English, but you will never be a part of the ‘inner circle’ of the business culture if you don’t speak German.  If you can communicate with them in their native language, you will be drawn closer to them.”

However important language skills are for conducting business, following economic trends may not be the best way to decide what language to study.

Prof. Mori, who came to the United States in 1989 to teach Japanese in Wisconsin high schools during the height of Japan’s economic power, says there is a danger in learning a language based solely on economic or political reasons.

“I started out my experience, because Japan was so important back then, and it was very much tied to economic initiatives, but look today what’s happened, all the schools that started the [Japanese] programs, they’re being cut…because of the budget…because Japan is not as powerful.”

Prof. Mori continues by saying that it is important to have speakers of a diverse array of languages for economic reasons yes, but also because from the point of view of an educator she doesn’t want to see students thinking only about what is considered the “hot language”.

In addition, Prof. Miernowski points out that being able to speak another language makes a person a better member of the global community: “being a citizen is to be able to take part in the public discourse on the global forum.”  He further suggests that if one considers there are dozens of languages with more than 5 million native speakers and numerous other languages beyond that, it appears that learning only “hot” languages may restrict a person’s ability to participate in the global forum.

Americans often do not speak a second language however, because English is a global lingua franca, but also the status of the United States within the international community.  While some believe that despite the many benefits of learning a second language, an American’s inability to speak a second language is not necessarily a terribly detrimental thing.

Prof. Louden said that knowledge of a foreign language is not necessary for most Americans or even most people in many parts of the world.

In contrast, Prof. Miernowski said American mono-lingualism is a detrimental for American citizens: “we as Americans…we face huge difficulties in understanding the world, because of this handicap.”

He continued to say that this is harmful for Americans, because not only does it “deprive the possibility of understanding the world beyond this country…their communication with other [American] people is basically jeopardized.”  Prof. Miernowski points out that although many people perceive the United States as an English speaking country, it is becoming increasingly bilingual—like Switzerland.  By not being able to speak both English and Spanish, Americans are unable to have “meaningful communication with other citizens.”

These language deficits are seen as a result of foreign language education in American schools.  Prof. Mori points to budgetary problems, which provide limited resources and keep programs small, while Prof. Louden, although he believes Americans do well with what is available, believes “we start teaching kids foreign languages later than we should…the earlier the better.”

Prof. Miernowski explains how American education and the educations systems in European countries differ when it comes to language programs: “In Europe students in high school, they don’t have a choice, they have foreign languages.  It is not an option not to learn two of them…this is embedded in legislation.”

Perhaps the most beneficial reason to learn a second language is that it offers people opportunities, which they may not have otherwise.  Prof. Mori draws from her own experience.  In a nostalgic tone she recounted her path to the United States through the English language: “I look back at the picture of a little girl growing up in the country side in Japan.  I look at myself in the States teaching—I wouldn’t have that without studying English.”

All the while the little Pokémon figure pokes its head out from on top of a cabinet innocently enticing us to explore more.