On Learning Languages

One of the common presumptions of many Americans today, I think, is that we no longer need to learn other languages. We Americans presume everyone can speak English and, if they can’t, they should learn, because English dominates the planet.

That is not a good argument against language study, it seems to me, beyond that at base it seems a little condescending.

Learning another language does not simply give us an easier way to order from a menu in Paris, or hail a taxi in Tokyo, if we ever even go there. It’s not only a way to excel in business or improve memory and critical thinking, though it is that. Beyond practical considerations, language underpins culture. It offers us another way to look at fellow human beings, at our world, and even at ourselves. Learning another language cracks the door into a world that so often seems opaque and closed. Maybe even scary. We understand more about why people may think differently from us. We gain tolerance of other viewpoints, respect for other cultures, and insights into ideals of our own that we probably have not examined before. We become literally smarter—research is pretty clear on that. But more than smarter: We Americans become more decent and compassionate people sharing the world with the billions of others who often only ask that we listen.

Dr. Ross Collins, Communication

Discovery Through Modern Language Study

Studying modern languages is often about discovery. Discovering a new mode of communication. Discovering a new place. Discovering a new culture. From my point of view as a high school and college student, the process of discovery seemed exclusively external. I wanted to learn about the world and other cultures. Much to my surprise, studying modern languages taught me about me and my culture.  Through language study, I improved my English. When visiting another country, I learned more about home.  As I spent time with my new friends abroad, I increased my knowledge of myself and my previously established social groups. While it is true that I learned about the world and I became proficient in two new languages, increased self-awareness is one of the greatest gifts of modern language study. 

When I first started taking modern language classes in high school, I was frightened. I am dyslexic, and I had been warned that learning another language would be very difficult for me. Learning to write and spell in English had been a struggle. And, just as I had been told, learning a language was quite challenging in the beginning. It took me a while to get the hang of conjugating verbs. Learning to spell in French using a variety of accents was not easy for me. After a couple of months of study, I got so discouraged that I decided to quit French class. My French teacher wrote on my drop slip that she was disappointed that I was quitting. But a funny thing happened. I tried again, and I got better. I also noticed that my English improved. I had felt that because I was dyslexic, I was doomed to being a terrible writer and that I would never be able to learn another language. I was wrong about both issues. My English improved so much that I was allowed to enroll in honors English. I became confident enough in my ability to learn a new language that I was taking both French and Spanish by high school graduation. 

By the time I started college, I felt confident that I knew quite a bit about the world. I was a high achieving student who experienced success in high school and earned a significant scholarship to a small liberal arts college. However, as I advanced into my higher level modern language classes and explored more of the liberal arts, I realized how much I didn’t know.  I remember discussing my discovery with my French professor. The most discouraging thing about education is discovering one’s ignorance. But, perhaps, this lesson is also the most important one to learn in college. The greatest thing you can learn is what you do not know. Wonder, not an accumulation of facts, is the mark of an excellent education.

As I headed toward the end of my undergraduate education, I studied abroad in France and Spain. Living abroad was something that I had yearned to experience. It was a life’s dream for me. I visited every museum I could. I photographed interesting buildings, landscapes, and people. I was absolutely ravenous for the experience. However, one day in France, I stood in a shop choosing souvenirs to bring home. And, it hit me. I didn’t know what to choose. I didn’t know what I liked. I started thinking of what my friends back home would think of the various objects. I considered what my family members might like to see. But what did I think apart from these people? What were my opinions? I didn’t have any idea. I left the store without a souvenir. I started to think that in all of my eagerness for discovery, I had not ever bothered to discover myself.  Perhaps this was the greatest discovery that I made in Europe. How can we know ourselves apart from all of the noise that culture and expectations produce? Can we uncover our individual truth without considering others’ opinions? I’ve since learned that many people ask themselves these same questions. Some at a much older age. One of the greatest gifts of studying abroad was asking this question for the first time.   

In the end, the highest learning outcome for an education that focuses on the liberal arts and modern languages is wonder and self-awareness. We are never more lost than when we incorrectly assume we are headed down the right path. Discovering that one is lost requires a certain level of awareness. Modern languages can be like a map that provides that baseline of awareness. It helps us to discover our true location. For instance, we cannot understand the bias of our perspective until we discover another. Understanding the perspective that our knowledge comes from has essential strategic implications in the professional world.  The education that I received in my language classes has helped me immensely in my field of advertising. My graduate studies advisor who was another modern language student studied the effects that language has on marketing communication. For instance, the U.S. uses war metaphors to describe advertising (target audience, campaigns, etc.). The French look at advertising through a more romantic lens. They see advertising as pursuing a lover. Before I learned about French advertising, I never thought about the aggressive undertones present in many advertisements in the United States. Understanding culture is key to effective marketing. It helps us communicate better with audiences in another culture. Using another culture’s advertising approach might even enhance our own communication strategies. Culture and language shape us in so many unpredictable ways.  

    Some might wonder, what is the actual return on investment for modern language study? What if you don’t use your language in your future career? What if you forget it? Obtaining the ability to speak another language is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to studying modern languages. Modern languages improved my communication and writing skills. Modern languages helped me understand people from various cultures by helping me understand my own culture. Modern languages taught me how to be more aware of others by becoming more self-aware.  Modern languages helped me stretch my abilities in ways I once thought impossible. Studying modern languages provided the building blocks that I needed to earn a Ph.D. in a field that is not directly related to language area studies. Modern language education offers insights that can enhance any course your life might take. Few disciplines can provide such a comprehensive benefit.

Dr. Elizabeth Crisp Crawford, Communication

Why should a business student learn another language?

As a department chair parents and students frequently approach me with questions about minors and double majors. I always tell them the same things. In the context of business education there are only two reasons to work on a minor or a second major, get one because you love the subject or because it makes you more marketable.

The first one is easy to grasp. Even in a business school, a college education should be more than a means to become employed. We all benefit from knowing more about the world and from studying things we love. However, while this will certainly make you a better person, it will not make you more employable.

Employers often talk about how much they want well-rounded students with a broad educational background, but in my experience the talk rarely translates into hiring practices. Despite what they say, employers hire students with skills and knowledge that will be immediately useful in the workplace. There are several approaches to acquiring such skills, including being knowledgeable in multiple areas of business, such as degrees in both marketing and accounting. What is even more valuable, though, is knowledge that will make your current degree even more valuable, what I refer to as “skill multipliers.” For example, most accounting and finance in business is heavily integrated with IT, so an accounting student who minors in management information systems multiplies his or accounting knowledge by being able to understand and apply in an IT system.

This is also true with languages. Business has been a global enterprise for many years, so the same accounting student who is fluent in one or more languages other than English has just increased the number of markets in which he or she can work, a considerable advantage in a world in which multinational firms are the norm. Moreover, the skill is immediately useful to the employer, which increases the likelihood of getting your initial hire as well as continued advancement.

Dr. Herbert Snyder, Accounting

Why Study a Foreign Language?

As far back as I remember, I wanted to be a scientist. By the time I was in junior high school I knew I wanted to be a chemist or geologist (I ultimately became a geochemist.) and people started to advise me that I would need to study a foreign language and that German was one of the best for a scientist to pick up. So I started studying German as a freshman in high school and absolutely fell in love with it. By the time I was a junior in high school I started the Spanish sequence and packed four years of the language into two. I also took one year of Latin in high school. By my junior year in high school I was seriously contemplating a career involving foreign languages (translator or maybe diplomat) instead of science. Ultimately, I stuck with science but continued my studies of German and Spanish in college. After I finished graduate school, I got my first job as a geology professor at McGill University in Montreal. Although I could have lived and worked there without learning French, I took a series of courses offered by the province to immigrants, and of course had the opportunity to be immersed in French on a daily basis. It was through watching sports in French that I learned such essential phrases as: “Le tir, et le but!” (the shot, the goal) and “Il a frappé un coup de circuit!” (He hit a home run.). Also while I was at McGill, I started formal study of Russian, in part out of curiosity to learn a language from a different class (Slavic), but also because I needed to access scientific articles in Russian that were not available in translation. Since then, my job has taken me to numerous foreign countries, many of which were not English speaking. Every time I went to such a country I spent quite some time beforehand learning some essential words and phrases, which led me to have some very basic exposure to Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Finnish, Danish, Norwegian, Italian, and Portuguese. In the past few years I have been engaged in fairly intensive but informal study of Irish Gaelic and Polish (a language I had been briefly exposed to as a child since my maternal grandparents came to the US from Poland).

Why have I, a scientist, been fascinated with and put so much effort into learning foreign languages? Well, certainly part of it has been to be able to access literature that is not in English. However, by the early 2000’s, English had truly become the lingua franca of science and now everybody around the world almost exclusively publishes and presents at conferences in English. Part of it was also the desire to be able to communicate while travelling abroad. The latter is certainly a valid reason for learning a language all by itself as one can still find oneself in a situation while travelling in which no one speaks English. And even if you encounter folks who do speak English, an attempt to speak a few words of their native language almost always is appreciated and opens doors. Nevertheless, these are not the only, or even necessarily the most compelling, reasons for studying a foreign language.

One thing that has always impressed me is how much studying other languages has helped me to improve my ability to communicate in my native tongue. With every new language I learn, I gain insights into grammar and etymology that help me better understand English grammar and expand my English vocabulary. The latter is even more important in science in which technical terms may be derived from Greek, Latin, German, French, or other roots.

Another reason I enjoy studying foreign languages is because it provides a unique understanding of the culture, and indeed the very soul, of a people. Sure, one can read about history, customs, beliefs, etc., in English and learn a great deal. But there is nothing quite like the insights that can be provided by examining the unique grammar and syntax of a language, the way in which both abstract and concrete ideas are expressed, or the absence of words for some things and the multiplicity of words for others. As the world becomes more globally interconnected, it is essential to be able to understand the culture and customs of people in other countries, something that is true for anyone wanting to be successful in academia, business, government, etc.

I also believe that acquiring the ability to read foreign literature in the original language allows one a deeper connection with those works. Sure, one can read Der Tod in Venedig or Don Quixote or Les Misérables in English translation, but one loses some of the beauty of the writing in translation. To be perfectly honest, I don’t have sufficient command of any language to be able to fully appreciate reading works of great literature in the original language. However, I aspire to one day be at that level in at least one language. Perhaps when I retire!

Finally, a thought for those of you who wish to be considered a scholar. I don’t think one can really consider oneself to be a well-educated person, let alone a scholar, unless you have studied at least one foreign language. Some may consider that to be an elitist point of view, but it is not. I believe that anyone can derive benefit (including enjoyment) from the study of a second language. So what are you waiting for?

Dr. Scott A. Wood, Geosciences

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