As a foreign language teacher, and one who has invested many years in continuing and broadening my own education, it has fallen to me to compose a rationale for the study of foreign languages.
In a day when online translators have greatly eased the struggle to read and write most common foreign languages, what are the benefits of investing two years or more of a high school education to learning a foreign language? And besides, doesn’t everyone speak English, anyway?
In response to the first question, I will defer to the expertise of the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages. Multiple studies undertaken by the ACTFL support the time one invests in studying a foreign language. Among many cited are:
• It relates to higher scores on standardized tests.
• It contributes to increases in reading skills.
• It is related to increased ability to hypothesize in science.
• It is related to increased memory skills and problem solving skills.
Jeremy Dean writing in PsyBlog adds these:
• Bilinguals are better at multi-tasking and have longer attention spans.
• It helps to offset age-related memory loss and delay dementia in adults.
These are mostly intellectual blessings, but there are innumerable benefits from the cultural and interpersonal opportunities as well.
In reality, no, not everyone speaks English, or speaks it well. As my students know, trying to communicate when one only knows a bit of a language can be intimidating. Speaking to people in their own language is not just a great relief to them, it is also a simple courtesy.
The study of a foreign language can also open doors into history and culture that leave enduring impressions on one’s mind. A person comes to realize that there are other ways of thinking and being that are just as valid as one’s own. This is, perhaps, the most valuable return from an investment into a language – a greater appreciation and acceptance for the rest of humanity. I challenge Google translator to perform that feat.
(Keith Ivers is a Libby Schools foreign Language teacher.)