The power of education: Importance of other languages

En la mayoría del mundo, es muy importante y común que la gente puede hablar más que un idioma. If you can read that (and you’re American), you’re with the other 10% of your paisanos who also speak Spanish.

As Americans we are incredibly fortunate that other countries are further ahead of us in terms of language education, and when we go to other countries, many are willing to meet us more than halfway by either knowing or making an effort to speak English. We are geographically isolated in comparison to Europe and Asia, where international travel is more common, and thus, knowing another language is much more of a necessity. But I don’t believe that makes it any less important for us to speak more than one language. IMHO, it’s ridiculous to reject the system of bilingual education.

Learning a new language makes you think more about the complexities of your native tongue, or at least it did for me. After spending five months learning and struggling with Spanish, the connections between languages became more apparent. Just a small example: It was easy for me to remember the word for beard, barba, because I connected it with the English word barber.

Some of you might think it’s too late to learn another language. And it’s true that the window of opportunity when it’s easiest to soak up all facets of another language ends roughly around the age of ten.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible – many community programs exist to teach adults, and if you’ve got a little bit of money and are looking to take a vacation, you can easily find resort-schools in Costa Rica, Mexico, and other Latin American countries where you can learn Spanish while you travel. Even New York’s Mayor Bloomberg made an effort, at 66 years old, to be able to speak with more of his constituents, and he was applauded by the executive director of the Modern Language association. And of course, there’s always Rosetta Stone.

UC-Berkeley’s Center for Research, Diversity & Excellence makes a great point that people get more value from their education when the lessons are meaningful for them, and that instructional conversation is a great way to learn. One way that might be easiest for you to learn a language is by finding a way to work it into your every day life. Seek out opportunities to work with English language learners (ELL) in your community – it’s a fantastic opportunity for both parties: As you grow to learn another language, they learn to speak the most common language in America from a native speaker.

Sidenote here: The United States has no official language, English is just the most widely spoken language. In China, the official language is Standard Mandarin, but nearly all Chinese people speak Mandarin in addition to the language native to their home province.

We are so fortunate to live in a country that still holds some appeal for foreigners. Once coined the, “land of opportunity,” America is now one of the most difficult countries to enter if you are from a poor or less-developed country. And despite that, people still make the effort. </political rant>

The value of being bi- or multilingual is priceless, and yet schools are cutting their foreign language programs, and well-known companies refuse to pay translators to offer their services to a larger audience. So if you, like me, have aspirations to work abroad one day, make foreign language learning a priority. As William Chase wrote in the New York Times, “There is no job for an American in a foreign country where a basic grasp of the language is not a distinct advantage.”

Is foreign language a part of your daily life? Do you think my left-leaning opinions on the necessity of learning another language are insane? If you have a bone to pick or just something to say, leave it in the comments and I’ll be happy to respond.

Note: This is part two of a three-part series called The power of education.

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9 responses to “The power of education: Importance of other languages

  1. En primer lugar, ¡estoy muy alegre que pude leer el primer frase! El lenguaje español es tan increíble.

    Secondly, a foreign language is part of my daily life, and I love it! I don’t regret a day of any Spanish class I’ve ever taken or any experiences that have come my way because of Spanish.

    Although I’m a lefty, too, I clearly believe that everyone should learn another language, or at least try to! And I’d hope that it’s not because I’m left-leaning that I feel that way; I don’t think it’s really because of that. I just feel like it’s because I’ve had such a beautiful experience thus far with the Spanish language, and I wish everyone could experience the same type of joy for themselves with the language, or any other foreign tongue for that matter!

    Un besito, guapitaaa.

    • Language is definitely best appreciated when you can apply it to everyday life, I agree. I was hoping no one would think my foreign-language-necessity opinions would be too left-leaning, but I thought it’d be a good disclosure point anyway, just to avoid any questions. Estoy feliz que disfrutaste mi “post!”

  2. multilingualmania

    Amen! Great job! No bone to pick here and definitely not too left leaning for my sensibilities!

  3. I’ve often ranted similarly, and I think you’re totally right. In Seattle there are a handful of language immersion schools where kids are taught bilingually from kindergarten on–I know of a Spanish, French and Japanese school.

    I’ve never understood the arguments against bilingual education. My mom taught herself Spanish so that she would have the language resources to teach the dozen first graders that came into her class every year unable to speak English, but still even by high school these kids were never able to fully catch up to their peers academically because they never understood the basic lessons in the primary grades.

    Imagine what a different world it would be if mom’s school offered bilingual classes! The kids of migrant workers would receive an education in their own language while at the same time learning English so that they could integrate with U.S. society, and the kids of established immigrant families and native American families (the rest of us) would have the door opened to better and more varied job opportunities.

    Side note: Ugh, “Protecting our Nation’s unity in the English language” (in the anti-bilingual link). Hey guys. English isn’t going anywhere, no need to feel so threatened. Go take up gardening or something, and relax.

    Thanks for the great post, Leia!

    • In the Milwaukee area it’s much the same, it’s really a shame there aren’t more immersion schools outside the country’s urban centers. That is so amazing your mom taught herself just to teach her kids though – what an inspiration! The mother of a friend of mine reluctantly started learning Spanish so she could teach the kids she works with at a primarily white, upper-class elementary school. She didn’t see the point of it, but I think those kids will thank her one day, if they continue implementation through high school. Kids on both sides of the spectrum (native English and Spanish/other language speakers) would certainly benefit from implementation of second-language-learning throughout all stages of education. It would be amazing! And to address your sidenote: Totally agree. They’re basically throwing their power around because their feathers get ruffled when they’re forced to hear people speak a language they don’t understand. Wimps!

  4. I took Spanish for 7 years. It’s beautiful, and I miss having an opportunity to speak it. While I had a fairly good education in elementary/middle school, one thing that was sorely lacking from our classrooms (and in most small-town classrooms) was the opportunity to being learning a foreign language at a young age. I think we should make it part of our educational curriculum – be it Mandarin, Spanish, French…we need to branch out.

    I think you might really enjoy this post: http://www.themiddlefingerproject.org/your-language-is-holding-you-hostage-and-why-ill-be-flying-obamas-private-jet-as-a-result/

    • I’ll give you an opportunity – speak with me! I know it seems scary/embarrassing/weird at first, to speak another language when you don’t actually have to, but after a semester abroad I’d love nothing more! Seriously, let me know 🙂 I loved that article you recommended too, and I actually read a little bit of Sapir & Whorf for a linguistics class I took. Awesome, thank you for that!

  5. Pingback: The power of education: Teacher appreciation « A Work in Progress

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