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I wish I had a dollar (or a euro or a yen)  for every time I heard someone say that they couldn’t learn a language. Yet studying a foreign language is much more than the ability to speak another language fluently. Bless you, Princeton University!

Princeton’s latest general education proposal would require all students to study a foreign language, even those already proficient in another language. The proposal acknowledges that a language isn’t something to cross off a list of requirements, much as other universities have allowed students to do by testing out, but rather a deep dive into culture and communication. In her November article, Colleen Flaherty noted that the trend has been in the other direction with most four-year institutions in the United States retreating from foreign language requirements. Worse still, some study abroad programs now allow students to take classes in English, rather than the language of the host country.

While it is now almost cliché to refer to our “increasingly globalized world” that reality hasn’t been embraced by universities to the extent that it should be. Today, most, if not all, university graduates will need to be able to communicate across cultures, but there will have been very little (if anything) included in their undergraduate program to help them to develop those skills. Studying another language (or two or three) increases the effectiveness of cross-cultural communication, not only in knowing words, but in developing a deeper understanding of language generally and its relationship to culture.

I am not a linguist but having now studied four foreign languages I recognize the tight relationship between language, culture and how we think. Cultural values, hierarchies, and traditions often play out in language. A growing body of research bears this out. Without some exposure to a foreign language, how would anyone develop any understanding or insight about the cultural dimension of language? It’s so important to recognize that we don’t all mean the same things with the same words.

Furthermore, language and thought are separate constructions. The way sentences and ideas are structured and expressed in German or Japanese is very different than in English. German and Japanese require the listener to pay careful attention because key communication clues often come at the end of a sentence. I have not studied Arabic or Chinese or Swahili or Diné Bizaad or Quechua, but I’m guessing that they don’t all follow that noun-verb-object pattern. Different languages, different ways of thinking. Pretty complicated, isn’t it?

Speaking Spanish not only allows me to communicate with Spanish-speakers but it helps me better understand the intent of non-native speakers when they are speaking English, and to be more patient with errors. Anyone who has communicated in a second language has, at some point, been tripped up by false cognates, embarrassed by words in a foreign language with multiple meanings, or horrified to discover the effect of a slight mispronunciation was to express something unintended. If you have struggled with another language you are more likely to hear more than words when listening to someone who is not a native-speaker of English. You listen for subtleties in the context that help you infer what the speaker is trying to say, even if it hasn’t been expressed clearly.

There is also the effect of expanded and enriched communication when bilingual (or multi-lingual) people get together. So many words don’t exist in translation. When I am speaking to friends and colleagues who are bilingual in English and Spanish, I can draw from a much larger vocabulary and choose the word from either language that best expresses what I want to say.

Then there are other practical advantages as well. The job market is much stronger for individuals who speak other languages, particularly Spanish, Chinese and Arabic. In the report, Not Lost in Translation: The Growing Importance of Foreign Language Skills in the US Job Market, findings indicate:

  • Over the past five years, demand for bilingual workers in the United States more than doubled. In 2010, there were roughly 240,000 job postings aimed at bilingual workers; by 2015, that figure had ballooned to approximately 630,000.
  • Employers seek bilingual workers for both low- and high-skilled positions. In 2015, 60 percent of the jobs with the highest demand for bilingual workers were open to individuals with less than a bachelor’s degree. Meanwhile, the fastest growth in bilingual listings from 2010 to 2015 was for so-called “high prestige” jobs, a category including financial managers, editors, and industrial engineers.

I am not naïve enough to believe that simply studying another language will immediately improve our capacity to communicate across cultures or guarantee jobs. But it’s a start. At the very least, we need to broaden the teaching of foreign language so that university students learn more than words and grammar and so that professors and students recognize that mastering a language isn’t necessarily the point. We don’t seem to expect everyone who takes a math course to become a mathematician or every student enrolled in philosophy to become a philosopher. The underlying principle of a liberal arts education is to equip students with a range of skills and tools that will facilitate their insertion into complicated social and economic environments. The potential learning from foreign language study should be a key part of that liberal education.



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