I wish I had a dollar (or euro or yen) for every time I heard someone say they couldn’t learn a language. However, the study of a foreign language is much more than the ability to speak another language fluently. Be blessed, Princeton University!
Princeton’s latest general education proposal would require all students to study a foreign language, even those who already master another language. The proposal recognizes that a language is not something to cross off a list of requirements, as other universities have allowed students to do by testing, but rather a deep dive into culture and communication. In her November article, Colleen Flaherty noted that the trend was the other way around, with most four-year institutions in the United States dropping foreign language requirements. Worse still, some study abroad programs now allow students to take courses in English, rather than the language of the host country.
While it is now almost cliché to refer to our “increasingly globalized world”, this reality has not been embraced by universities to the extent that it should be. Most, if not all, college graduates today will need to be able to communicate across cultures, but there will be very little (if anything) included in their undergraduate curriculum to help them develop these skills. . Studying another language (or two or three) increases the effectiveness of cross-cultural communication, not just in knowing words, but in developing a deeper understanding of language in general and its relationship to culture.
I am not a linguist, but having studied four foreign languages, I recognize the close relationship between language, culture and our way of thinking. Cultural values, hierarchies and traditions often play into language. A growing body of research confirms this. Without some exposure to a foreign language, how could one develop an understanding or insight into the cultural dimension of the language? It’s so important to recognize that we don’t all mean the same things with the same words.
Moreover, language and thought are distinct constructs. The way sentences and ideas are structured and expressed in German or Japanese is very different from that in English. German and Japanese require the listener to pay close attention, as the main communication cues are often found at the end of a sentence. I haven’t studied Arabic, Chinese, Swahili, Diné Bizaad, or Quechua, but I guess they don’t all follow this noun-verb-object pattern. Different languages, different ways of thinking. Quite complicated, isn’t it?
Speaking Spanish not only allows me to communicate with Spanish speakers, but it helps me better understand the intent of non-native speakers when speaking English and be more patient with mistakes. Anyone who has communicated in a second language has at some point been caught up in false cognates, embarrassed by foreign language words with multiple meanings, or horrified to discover that the effect of a slight mispronunciation was to express something involuntary. If you’ve struggled with another language, you’re more likely to hear more than words when listening to someone who isn’t a native English speaker. You listen for subtleties of context that help you infer what the speaker is trying to say, even if it hasn’t been expressed clearly.
There is also the effect of expanded and enriched communication when bilingual (or multilingual) people come together. So many words do not exist in translation. When talking to friends and colleagues who are bilingual in English and Spanish, I can tap into a much larger vocabulary and choose the word from either language that best expresses what I want to say. .
Then there are other practical advantages as well. The job market is much stronger for people who speak other languages, especially Spanish, Chinese and Arabic. In the reportNot Lost in Translation: The Growing Import of Foreign Language Skills in the US Job Market, the results indicate:
- Over the past five years, the demand for bilingual workers in the United States has more than doubled. In 2010, there were approximately 240,000 job offers for bilingual workers; by 2015, that number had jumped to around 630,000.
- Employers are looking for bilingual workers for low- or high-skilled positions. In 2015, 60% of jobs most in demand for bilingual workers were open to people with less than a bachelor’s degree. Meanwhile, the fastest growth in bilingual enrollment from 2010 to 2015 was in so-called “high-prestige” jobs, a category that includes chief financial officers, editors and industrial engineers.
I’m not naive enough to believe that simply studying another language will immediately improve our ability to communicate across cultures or secure jobs. But it’s a start. At the very least, we need to expand foreign language teaching so that university students learn more than words and grammar and teachers and students recognize that mastering a language is not necessarily the goal. We don’t seem to expect everyone who takes a math course to become mathematicians or everyone enrolled in philosophy to become a philosopher. The underlying principle of a liberal arts education is to equip students with a range of skills and tools that will facilitate their integration into complex social and economic environments. The learning potential of foreign language study should be a key part of this liberal education.