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Why We Should Learn Other Languages

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May I now lead three boisterous cheers for Spanish, French, Japanese, Arabic, Italian, Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Greek, Latin, Farsi, German, and Urdu as a second language. And any other of the scores of global languages you'd like to include.

When math and science are increasingly seen as crucial to our national well-being and future prosperity, the mental and emotional process of learning a language not one's own is still among the most powerful forces in education.

Speaking Tongues

I've been thinking about the wonderful effects of learning a language for a few reasons. First, I'm reading a very pleasurable book called La Bella Lingua, by an American writer named Dianne Hales, about her experience falling in love with Italian and then studying that beautiful language.

The book resonates with me, since I have been studying Italian for about a dozen years now, mostly through classes that have by now evolved into weekly two-hour conversations with a private tutor -- a fast talker from Turin who forces me to keep up with her onrushing molto veloce patter.

Truth be told, I'm not a distinguished language learner. My high school and college years were spent in a mighty struggle with the Spanish subjunctive, which never made much sense to me. I was a fidgety student with a notable lack of discipline, so little of Cervantes's noble tongue remains with me today.

The Fundamentals

I did manage to become at least semifluent in Greek while living in Greece for most of seven years. But that was auditory learning; I absorbed the language by osmosis, by hearing and speaking it every day, as much out of necessity as scholastic joy.

My reading was always quite slow and very imperfect, and complicated conversations with my multilingual Greek friends were usually conducted in English -- for their sakes! But years later, even with my Greek now much atrophied, I can intuit the roots of many English words that came from that language.

My commitment to Italian, however, which began when my son was attending the University of Padova and I went to visit him, has lasted. With the first of many annual trips my wife and I take to Italy, it seemed to make sense to learn enough Italian to shop and order meals at restaurants. But I found Italian as wonderful to speak as pasta is to eat, and began taking classes. Now I speak and read passably well, though I can never be far from an Italian dictionary.

Common Denominators

What I have rediscovered, many years after trying to come to terms with Greek, is that learning a new language has enriched my awareness of the beauty of English, and that expanding my Italian vocabulary has brought me into contact with unfairly neglected words in my mother tongue.

For instance, one of the Italian terms for newspaper is quotidiano. This translates directly to the English quotidian, a much livelier, unfairly neglected synonym for the prosaic daily. And hearing the opulent and operatic music of Italian has made me listen more carefully to the music of English, which even as a writer I tended to take for granted.

These pleasures and revelations would come to me, I'm sure, no matter what language I had decided to learn. And though I am now uno studente vecchio, an old student, and have to work harder at learning than I would have if, as a high school student, I'd understood the riches that were being offered.

Homegrown, native Americans are famously -- or infamously -- averse to foreign languages. Of course, we produce gifted linguists. My son has the gift, and speaks Italian and Spanish, and is now learning Farsi, and I have friends who paid attention as kids and still speak excellent French.

The Bigger Picture

As a result of immigration, we have many bilingual fellow citizens. But unlike, say, Swedes, we don't produce many native-born graduates who speak any other language fluently. This, I'm convinced, contributes to isolationism and xenophobia. (There's one of those Greek-rooted words.)

Learn a language, and you learn a people. Learn a people, and you learn about yourself.

I was lucky enough, in high school, to have inspirational history and English teachers. The former gave me a lifelong interest in history; the latter gave me a career as a writer. But I regret that my Spanish teachers never managed to ignite the same interest in me, although as an avid reader of Hemingway, I envisioned a life of foreign travel.

Certainly, those teachers can't be blamed for failing to penetrate my innate sloth. But I think what they didn't do -- something my history teachers did -- was highlight the romance of language, and show me the importance of learning another way of speaking and thinking. I was always a sucker for romance, and I'm sure that this approach would have worked.

I'm told that mathematics is a language, which I'm willing to believe even though I don't speak it. So it seems ironic that math is front and center in the No Child Left Behind Act, while foreign languages are left behind.

Admittedly, I am far from the front lines in the education battles, but I am pretty sure that language teachers today -- perhaps better traveled than those in my day -- are able to pass along the sense of adventure and global understanding the treasure trove of tongues offers.

I'd love to hear how you are teaching language these days, and how students are responding. Please share with us your experiences and insights.

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Comments (15) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Amber Mayfield's picture

I'm so excited that I came across this blog tonight and that this issue is being discussed in education. This is actually a conversation I've been having with my 8th graders recently. In fact, I'm having them write a persuasive essay to convince me whether or not students should be required to take a K-12 foreign language. I was pleasantly surprised that the majority of my 150 students believe that students should be learning a language throughout their 13 years of schooling. They are coming up with excellent arguments related to how it would make American children more competitive in an increasingly global economy. They have also made insightful arguments as to how it would increase communication between cultures and help break down some of the stereotypes so many Americans hold about other nations.
I appreciate however, the arguments of my students who sit on the other side of the issue. They have raised the issue of costs (which it would be a huge expense to implement a district-wide foreign language in the midst of budget cuts), as well as taking away students' ability to fall in love with a foreign language by forcing them to learn one, rather than a student choosing to do so.
I think this is a conversation that needs to be had amongst educators. As a teacher and a parent, I want my children to be appreciative of other cultures and prepared to participate in a world where English is not the only language (not that it ever was--but in America we have long been able to function as if it were). I see such an interest in my 5 year old right now in learning Spanish words, and I wish that we would capitalize on that hunger for learning when our students are young so that they can be multilingual in the future.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Edcamper, Former @Edutopia, Founder of Social Media Marketing Consultancy aimed at helping educational orgs.

I recently started to take an Italian classs and love it. I mainly decided to do this because I felt that I was missing the very thing you speak of in my every day life: Exposure to another culture, deeper understanding of our own language and roots, and an overall a linguistic challenge (beautiful but challenging!).

When I went to high school, two years of foreign language was actually required. I ended up taking French and that spurred a deep curiosity of the French culture. As a result, I ended up taking over 6 years of French in high school and college. Although taking another language did immerse me into another culture and gave me a better understanding of the world and our language, like you, I got caught up in the grammar and had less of an auditory experience.

I think in order to really get students to learn another language, it needs to be more of a conversational format, and less of a grammar-based education. What I loved about my recent Italian class is that it made us all accept that we were going to make mistakes and that in order to learn a language, you'll need to make mistakes -- but we would all make them together. Humility is one thing I never learned when taking French and to this day I'm still a little gun shy to speak it.


C. Gando's picture

I have been teaching high school Spanish for the past four years. During the last two years I have been giving even more attention to the cultures of many Spanish speaking countries in the world. Living in New York, I pay particular attention to the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico and Puerto Rico. We also spend time talking about Colombia, Argentina and Ecuador.

Our local PBS stations offer some great programs which are available on DVD and on occasion we will watch portions of them in class. We have International Culture week in the spring as well. We celebrate the culture of various countries through food, music and dance.

In the past year we have also had three wonderfully successful trips to Broadway. Our Spanish classes have gone twice to see "In the Heights", which celebrates the lives of Latinos living in NY. We have also gone to see the revival of "West Side Story". The students love how the Latino elements in dance and speaking Spanish are incorporated into both shows.

Maura Garau's picture
Maura Garau

Owen, thank you for your posting, 'mi ha aperto il cuore', I created a link to you article on our blog:

Our experience in teaching Italian to adults as well as high school students is that when we offer them a key for their personal growth they respond very well.

To me, "educare" (to educate, to teach - from the Latin "ex-ducere", to bring out) really means to facilitate/help/allow each student to express (bring out) the best of him/herself. This is personal growth.

And your sentence: "learn a language, and you learn a people. Learn a people, and you learn about yourself" expresses the concept very well.


Michelle Sanchez's picture

Being bilingual is becoming for of a necessity than anything else. Being able to speak another language is a gift that a lot of people wish they had. I am very fortunate to speak both English and Spanish fluently. I am able to relate to my Hispanic students and their families. I am also able to pick up other Latin languages with minimal difficulty. Being able to be involved in other people's culture helps build good relationships and therefore as a teacher you can receive a lot of support.

Sonja Killebrew's picture

I am a Spanish teacher. While I am certified to teach grades k-12, I have taught middle school for four years. Initially when I first started teaching I focused on reading and grammar. I quickly realized that not all of my students shared my love for grammar. They wanted to learn how to speak Spanish; forget about reading and writing. This year I was given access to the program, Rosetta Stone, which teaches using visual and auditory aids. Rosetta Stone focuses on speaking and comprehension. As a result my students are delighted to be able to describe pictures and to describe simple situations in Spanish. I now use games such as Pictionary, charades, and Simon Says to motivate my students to learn the Spanish words in order to win the games. They are so competitive that they have learned close to 100 words in six weeks because they want to win the games. Rosetta Stone has revolutionized how I teach Spanish. My students are having fun and I'm loving the teaching process.

Jennifer Poole's picture

I agree with you. Why do foreign languages get left in the dust when the value is so obvious? I have talked with many adults who have taken Spanish and they remember nothing and don't use it at all. I do know however what learning a foreign language has done for me and the broader view and wonderful experience of having the Spanish speaking world open up before me is indescribably worthy.

Some exciting new things are happening in the teaching methodology of foreign languages. TPR-S, invented by Blaine Ray and based off of the natural method has made the focus fluency rather than the rules of grammar. It resembles and improves upon total immersion. I am less excited after trying it and finding that it is just as much work and I have to develop my expertise as it is new to me and I kind of feel like I am starting over but it is worth it because the results that I have seen are significant. Check out the website if you want to know more.

Kevin H's picture
Kevin H
elementary ELD

Although I did not grow up bilingual I learned Spanish in my early adult years and maintain a conversational (more or less) level in reading and writing. It is a major reason I have the job I have now in Oregon as an elementary ELD (English Language Development) teacher. Last year Oregon had a ballot measure to take away additional language opportunities (except for high school foreign language) and essentially turn classrooms into English-only environments. Thankfully, enough people voted against it. My question was, and still is, why aren't there ballot measures that create bilingual opportunities at all grade levels, especially when we need to be globally aware and skilled? In an effort to promote bilingualism, Garfield Elementary School in Corvallis, Oregon recently was given a national award (for student learning gains?). I think things like that should be all over the news ...

K Tennis K's picture

Agreed. Europeans usually learn other languages.
For many immersion seems best method.
I am going to make 2010 as a year I learn at least one new language.

atllanguages's picture
Atlanta International Language Institute

Learning a foreign language can do wonders for increasing our understanding of the English language as well. And with your comment that "mathematics is a language", I have to wonder if using those same mental processes of learning a foreign language might indeed increase our mathematical skills as well.

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