Why do we learn foreign languages, or Justification for my job

I found a couple of very interesting articles the other day about language learning, and more specifically, Latin learning.  I have always been fascinated by Latin, and wished I could have learned it in school, so I was drawn to this article that said teaching Latin in school can inspire students to want to learn other languages.  The other article was talking about the unfortunate decline of foreign language departments, especially at the university level.  The article states, “according to Language Matters, a recent report from the British Academy, as many as a third of university language departments have closed in the last seven years” – and most of those are German departments, which hits me personally pretty hard.

I have written before about foreign languages and the challenges teachers of foreign languages are faced with, but it occurs to me that I haven’t ever actually done a post about why learning foreign languages is important.  So, here it is.

1. Communication

It is true that most people in the world speak at least some form of English, so a lot of Americans are of the idea that they  don’t need to learn a foreign language.  They see the only reason for learning a foreign language as communicating with others, so as long as others can communicate with them, they do not need to learn another language.  This is the original need of learning a foreign language, but it is not the only reason to learn a foreign language.  While it is true that many people in the world speak English, most do not speak it natively.  They speak it as a second, or third language, so their ability to express themselves in English will not be as great as their ability to express themselves in their native language.  If we learn their language as well, then together, with our combined language skills in each other’s language, greater communication and understanding can occur. Willy Brandt , former Chancellor of West Germany, is credited with saying, “If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen.”  We should learn another language because it is polite, it is good business, it is a good idea, in order to fully be able to communicate.  We cannot sit back and expect the world to do everything for us, to learn our languages perfectly, to cater to us, and not do anything oursleves.

2. Culture

More than just the ability to communicate, an understanding of a foreign language gives a deeper understanding of culture.  You not only learn what people say in other countries, but why they say it.  How a person expresses an idea is closely tied to their native language.  For example, in German they use the word ‘Freund’ in a very different way than Americans use the word ‘friend’.  An American uses the word ‘friend’ very freely; somebody I met once several years ago may be referred to as ‘a friend of mine’.  To an American the words ‘colleague’ and ‘acquaintance’ are distant and unfriendly, which reflects a mentality and a culture present in America.  In Germany they use the words ‘Kolleger’ and ‘Bekannter’ when they are appropriate, and they only use the word ‘Freund’ for someone they really consider a good friend. (On a side note that same word ‘Freund’ can also mean boyfriend, a friend with whom one is romantically involved, it has a more intimate meaning than ‘friend’ does in America.)  This can cause some misunderstandings when Americans and Germans communicate, even if they are using the same language, it goes back to the culture of these two peoples.  If a German calls you a ‘Freund’, then you are someone special, but often for an American, a friend is only a friend if one maintains contact.  I was an LDS Missionary in Germany, and a woman told me that I had been invited into her home, I had eaten at her table, she had called me ‘Freund’, and now it was expected that I remain in contact with her, write her, let her know how I was doing when I had returned home.  I was a ‘Freund’, which is almost family.  She was disappointed in other American missionaries who had come and gone and no longer wrote or had any contact.  This is simply one of many cultural differences, but as one understands how a German uses the word ‘Freund’, one begins to understand what they consider important. (The three ancient German ‘Tugenden’, or virtues that are extolled in their legends and stories are “Treue, Ehre, Gastfreundschaft” – Loyalty, honor, and hospitality.  A classic Germanic myth tells of a man who had as a guest in his house the king of a neighboring tribe, when his own king asked him to kill the other king.  This man was then put in a moral dilemma, which Virtue does he break, loyalty to his king or hospitality to his guest?)

Language teaches culture as well and that provides a deeper understanding.

3. Encourage learning and creative thinking

In the Latin article they provide some reasons for studying a dead language, “Latin can excite students because it is intrinsically interesting, and it engages them in a subject world they want to study. At the same time, students learn such transferable skills as logical thought and pattern spotting, ability to learn data, enhanced communication skills and critical thinking.” Especially when studying languages like Latin, Greek, or German (or, I suppose, any Latin-based language) there is a definite benefit to students in English.  I have come to realize that the more I study German, the better I understand English, English being a Germanic language.  I learn the grammar and a lot of vocabulary that help me understand English better.  I have also taken a beginning Greek class, and am surprised at where I see English words with Greek roots. (hippopotamus is a Greek word; hippo is horse and potami is river. Riverhorse.  Which also means that the Potamic River is just a little bit redundant.)

And in the other article they make similar points about the benefit of foreign language learning. “Even if the vast majority of pupils never use their languages after they leave school, there are many studies that prove learning a language makes them better at learning everything else. Children who study a foreign language are better at maths than students who don’t – even when language classes mean they have less time in maths classes. Bilingual children are better at reading and spelling, better at grammar and word-recognition; they write better. Young children taught second languages have better cognitive flexibility and creative thinking skills. There is even a study that found students who studied Latin, French, German or Spanish in high school performed better at college than students of equal academic ability who did not take a foreign language.”

Learning a foreign language increases a student’s cognitive ability.  The same is true of students who study music, because, honestly, music is a different language.  There are notes that translate into music, it is this way of learning and looking at the world that makes students who study music better at maths and sciences.  Foreign language learning does the same thing.  It opens students’ minds and makes them well-rounded.  They learn about other cultures and realize that the world is not American-centric. They realize that the world has a history much richer and longer than the US could ever dream of. (I once lived in a city in Germany, Paderborn, that had a plaque on a fountain in the city center celebrating the 1200th anniversary of the city’s founding in 1979.  This city was celebrating 1200 years at the same time our country was barely celebrating 200!)

There is also that wonderful line from the film Mr. Holland’s Opus.  The Vice Principal says “I care about these kids just as much as you do. And if I’m forced to choose between Mozart and reading and writing and long division, I choose long division.” To which Mr. Holland replies “Well, I guess you can cut the arts as much as you want. Sooner or later, these kids aren’t going to have anything to read or write about.”  By studying foreign languages we give students context for what they are learning.  How much more impressive would a history lesson on WWII be if you could read some of the Nazi propaganda in the original?  Or a philosphy course that reads Kant, Heidegger, Jung, Freud,  Nietzsche?  Or a literature class that not only reads good American novels, but Goethe, Lessing, Thomas Mann, Kafka?  The more we expose our children to multi-culturalism the richer their world becomes.  And to read or watch movies in the native language means so much more than having to rely on subtitles or dubbing.

Language learning will always be important, no matter how small the world gets.  Cultures and countries will hold on desperatley to their native languages, their native identities, even as English is spoken more and more as a second language.  The more I learn of their language, the more I learn of them.  And the very act of learning, no matter what you are learning, needs to be fostered and encouraged simply because we want to instill in our children the desire to always be learning, to help them be successful in life.