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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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Jaclyn's picture
Owner of Kids Connect Preschool & Child Care Facility

I remember learning Spanish from 7th-10th grade, and each year it seemed as if we would learn the same thing over and over. When I was in college, I took an additional 2 courses, and Spanish II was more in depth than Spanish I and also became a challenge to me. I had received an A in Spanish I, and a C in Spanish II, just happy that I passed! Now as I look back, I wish I had given 100% of my effort and retained what I had learned. It seems that because school is a requirement, children are more oppositional to learning. Their lives are filled with homework, projects, studying, and presentations; not exactly the interests of children in middle and high school.

When I started my first year teaching just 2 years ago, I was placed in the district that I had attended as a child. I was in a P-2 school, and was very surprised that a language was not being taught. Can you believe that after 15 years (I am figuring back to when I was in 5th grade when language became a subject) the district had not changed the grade level at which the students learn a foreign language?
I was also a one on one aide in an inner city district that actually only consisted of 1 school that educated students from P-8. The majority of the students spoke either Spanish or Portuguese as an additional language to English. They were offered a language class, however it was Spanish. I was confused by this since just about the entire school already spoke Spanish, and wondered what the motive of the principal was. Perhaps he wanted to give the students an opportunity to excel in if not many other subjects, this one.

I currently tutor a 3rd grader whose parents are from Italy and Brazil. Naturally, there are 3 languages spoken in their home. Lorenzo, the boy I tutor, refuses to respond to his parents in their language, although he can understand it. I try to emphasize the importance of being multilingual, especially now more than ever. At 9 years old, Lorenzo does not understand this. His parents try to convince him, but he doesn't listen. My question is how can I persuade Lorenzo, or better yet get him to accept this notion on the significance of remaining trilingual? I consider myself a novice teacher, and would really appreciate any advice or feedback!

Christine's picture

I work around some children who are learning English as a second language. One thing I have noticed is that they are so eager to pick up this second language, whereas many of the other students are reluctant to learn more about their own language. However, for any student to learn a second language, they will learn more about their own, so it is so important that we encourage all of our students to learn one as well. Our students when they are young have the capacity to learn many different languages, and yet we only teach them one- why is that? Why do foreign languages start in middle or high school and not elementary school? If we taught foreign languages all through school, our students may be more eager to learn other languages. It may also help them be more respectful of other nationalities instead of just assuming that all people that are of a certain group are a certain way.

If we all learned other languages, then we will help keep cultures and traditions alive. This would also mean that students like Lorenzo would understand the importance of keeping one's culture alive while also being a part of the culture where one lives. As teachers, it is our responsibility to teach all students to be as well-rounded as possible,

Shannon Miller's picture

Well, I am happy to announce that gone are the days of the verb drills in the subjunctive and endless vocabulary quizzes. Not to say that those things are not important, but they represent just one part of the whole teaching-learning experience in today's foreign language classroom.

My personal goal is to bring the culture of French-speaking peoples alive in the classroom and to present second language learning as an exciting journey. Speaking and understanding is the primary focus in the level 1 courses today, with writing and reading skills to follow. Placing a focus on speaking first provides students with instant gratification and causes excitement about the language. Language is always taught in context. We never teach vocab or grammar outside a real-life setting. Theme teaching predominates. For example, "how to get what you want" in a cafe is a common teaching goal for beginning students. Besides learning all the necessary grammar and vocabulary for ordering food, students learn about the culture surrounding cafes. We might make cross-disciplinary connections with literature (Hemingway) and art (Toulouse-Lautrec). Students make and create authentic menus after researching existing cafes in Paris. Students act out cafe scenes in costume with traditional cafe accordion music playing in the background. Students learn about the Euro and the EEC. In some instances, we have connected online with other teenagers in classrooms in France. We use the Rosetta Stone program. (The way to a teenager's heart is through food and fun technology, I have found!)This is just a small snapshot of what goes on in my classroom and in the classrooms of my colleagues.

Serious involvement in becoming proficient in the language as students advance culminates in a trip abroad. This is life-changing for my students. I teach in a small rural school in Indiana. Most of my students have never been on an airplane;therefore, I am thrilled to give them this opportunity. Their excitement upon return to the states is contagious to others and helps to fuel my program at the lower levels. I would like my students to see foreign language study as a pleasure. When they are able to use language in real-life situations, to make discoveries what it is to be American, and to have a deeper understanding that language reflects culture, their enjoyment is so much deeper. I, too, Mr. Edwards, love to point out language connections, root words, etc. to my students during class. I find as students advance, they find them on their own and like to call them out in class.

Jaclyn pointed out that she is worried about the late start students in her district are experiencing. Many cash-strapped school systems are cutting foreign language as an "extra", or reducing the programs. This is alarming to many parents and educators because we have been taught in the past that brain science shows that there is a finite window of opportunity for maximum success in second language acquisition. Current research, however, shows that the window for new learning does not shut. Steve Miller and Paula Tallal 2007) state that the brain is always modifiable and "plastic". Although we worry that American students are behind their peers, we are must deal with the situation with a positive attitude. Students do have time to make real progress in foreign language-learning. Foreign language classrooms must follow best practices and resonate with the spoken language. Teacher should use immersion as much as possible. Events (spoken language) that repeat themselves frequently make neurological pathways. "This form of learning is known as experience-dependent learning or neuroplasticity" (p.2).

Language should be exciting, meaningful to teenagers lives, and based in the real world context (maybe save Cervantes for college?)

Miller, S., & Tallal, P. A. (2006, December). Addressing literacy
through neuroscience. The School Administrator.

Jacqueline Ebanks's picture

In my science classroom, whenever there are hispanic students, I try to use as many spanish vocabulary words and phrases as possible. Whenever I do this ,it always sparks much interest and curiousity from the students. They are always fascinated to know that I speak a little of their language. During my classes, I also try to solicit help from other hispanic students who have an average level of proficiency in English, to do some translating of instructions. In this way, I manage to get my students more involved and stimulated to learn. I also obtained much help by regularly attending a local hispanic church on the weekend.

Sonia Dickson's picture

I think that learning to be bilingual is a great idea. I always talk to my fifth grade students and I emphasize the importance of paying attention to their own language. The way I explain it,in order to learn a foreign language you must first learn your own. My students are very interested in learning Spanish. They are totally excited because they have learned to read a menu. So now they show off when they go out to eat with their parents. I am very proud of my students and their progress and I will always encourage them to learn more of my language.

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