Why study a foreign language?
Foreign language study enhances academic skills, raises SAT scores, and prepares students for careers.
Over the past two decades, countries in the world have become more and more interdependent, and new technologies have erased many existing borders. As boundaries between countries are dissolved, foreign language instruction has become more necessary than ever for linking with the rest of the world and for producing an enlightened citizenship able to function in today’s ever-shrinking world.
The need for foreign language study
To be competitive on a global scale, the business world of tomorrow needs individuals who can work in a culturally diverse environment and who have strong skills in a foreign language. U.S. companies have committed many faux pas when attempting to market their products abroad. One such example involves a major American airline company wanting to advertise its new leather first class seats in the Mexican market. It translated its "Fly in Leather" campaign literally as "Vuela en cuero," which means "Fly Naked" in Spanish. One can only imagine the embarrassment that must have ensued. Additionally, many businesses are looking for people who are proficient in other languages. Such skills are needed in service industries (hotel, tourism, food); publishers and entertainment industries (films, radio, and sound production); corporate offices with overseas accounts; and also in other areas such as medicine, law, business, journalism, and more general government work. Knowing another language provides a competitive edge in career choices in today’s and tomorrow’s world.
Once again, the connection between languages and national security has risen to the forefront. In the past decades, the US government has relied heavily on technical means for gathering intelligence; however, the events of September 11 have highlighted the shortage in the manpower needed to translate the messages gathered through intelligence. In the wake of September 11, there was a rash of requests for speakers of other languages. Lack of foreign language expertise will continue to undermine national security, because the only way to get the deep understanding of another country that is needed for intelligence operations is to master the language spoken there
A less obvious but nonetheless compelling reason to study another language is the power that languages have to promote understanding between people of different cultural backgrounds. The study of another language helps students develop a sense of cultural pluralism, an openness to and appreciation of other cultures (Carpenter and Torney; Hancock and Lipton et al.; Lambert and Tucker). Only through their languages can we understand other cultures.
In the world of work, managers who know how to deal with a diverse workforce will have an edge as minorities keep moving to North Carolina. The workplace of tomorrow will be a world of many cultures and languages. According to the Kiplinger Washington Editors, the Hispanic share of the workforce will increase by 25 percent by 2010, and the Asian share by around 50 percent. North Carolina is already being deeply affected by its growing non-English-speaking population. The last census reported a large increase in the Hispanic population of North Carolina. In addition, 60,000 students who speak over 170 different languages are enrolled in our public schools.
Benefits to students
The study of another language affects academic areas as well. Research has shown that children who have studied a foreign language in elementary school achieve higher scores on standardized tests in reading, language arts, and mathematics than those who have not (Masciantonio, Rafferty). The results of the Louisiana Report on foreign language and basic skills (Rafferty) show that regardless of their race, sex, or academic level, students in foreign language classes outperformed those who were not taking foreign languages. Foreign language study has also been shown to enhance listening skills and memory, and the development of second language skills can contribute a significant additional dimension to the concept of communication. Furthermore, students who have studied a foreign language develop greater cognitive skills in such areas as mental flexibility, creativity, divergent thinking and higher order thinking skills (Foster and Reeves; Landry; Rafferty; Ginsburg and McCoy).
Data from the Admissions Testing Program of the College Board show a positive correlation between SAT scores and the study of a foreign language. Verbal scores of students increased with each additional year of language study. Interestingly, the verbal scores of students who had taken four or five years of foreign language were higher than the verbal scores of students who had taken four or five years of any other subjects.
Enhanced career opportunities
As noted earlier, the knowledge of other languages will be a valuable asset in the workplace of tomorrow. Workers will be called upon to cooperate with colleagues in other countries, crossing time zones, languages, and cultures.
Issues to consider
One must not assume that language learning is quick and painless. To truly learn a language, one must have the opportunity to learn early. Neurobiologist Carla Shatz believes that there are windows of opportunity for learning that open and close throughout a person’s life. The implication is that if you miss the window of opportunity for learning a particular skill or concept, you are playing with a handicap. Obviously, learning continues to take place throughout a person’s life, but the optimum time for learning occurs until the age of 10 or 12, when the brain of young children is believed to be most receptive (Chugani). For this reason, early language learning is most effective when it is started early on in a child’s life. Researchers believe that the window begins to close around the age of 7 or 8. Another equally important factor in language learning involves the length of time devoted to it. To become proficient in another language, learners must progress through various overlapping stages spanning several years, just as they did when they acquired their first language. They must also consider the difficulty of the selected language. Some languages, such as Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese, take longer for native English speakers to acquire than others more closely related to English.
If education is a means to prepare students for the complicated world they inhabit, then the educational system cannot deprive students of a general education in the area of foreign language. The value of such an education not only lies in job preparation but also in developing an understanding of other people and cultures.
Chugani, H. (1993). "Reshaping Brain for Better Future." As quoted in Chicago Tribune, April 15. Cohen, P. (1995). "Understanding the Brain." Education Update. ASCD. Cooper, T. (1987).
"Foreign Language Study and SAT Verbal Scores." Modern Language Journal 71, pp. 381-387.
Gingsburg, H. and McCoy, I. (1981). "An Empirical Rationale for Foreign Language in Elementary Schools." Modern Language Journal 65, pp. 36-42.
Hirsch, J. Quoted in Winslow, R. (1997). "How Language Is Stored in Brain Depends on Age." Wall Street Journal, July 10.
Krashen S. and M. Long et al. (1982). Child-Adult Differences in Second Language Acquisition. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House.
Olsen, S. A. and L.K. Brown (1992). "The Relation Between High School Study of Foreign Languages and ACT English and Mathematics Performance." ADFL Bulletin 23, No. 3.
Rafferty, E. A. (1986). Second Language Study and Basic Skills in Louisiana. Baton Rouge: Louisiana Department of Education.