Why Study Foreign Languages?

Language Day

Language Day (Photo credit: Presidio of Monterey: DLIFLC & USAG)

Many students ask this question.  Before I became a full-time school administrator I taught French (language and literature) for many years.  I also have a working knowledge of Spanish.  Many students did not see the importance of foreign languages and sought to drop them as soon as possible.  We therefore made the study of French and Spanish compulsory during the first two years, at my secondary school.   From year 3 to year 5, students had to study either French or Spanish and they made their choice individually.  Only a small percentage of them chose to continue studying both foreign languages; and again, only a few persisted with a foreign language up to year 7.

It seems to me that large numbers of native English speakers do not want to make the effort to learn foreign languages.  They seem to think that since vast numbers of non-English speakers all over the world are learning to speak English as a priority, this removes the necessity for Anglophone nations to give high priority to the study of foreign languages.  This kind of thinking would be a mistake.  In contrast, one can find many bilingual and multilingual persons in continental Europe.

Foreign languages are not easy to learn.  It takes a lot of time, patience and determination to master them.  However, the world has become a global village and in this new reality the ability to speak foreign languages is paramount for almost everyone.  Let us consider some of the reasons for studying foreign languages.

FOR PERSONAL REASONS:

  • You can converse with other people in their own language.
  • Foreign travel becomes less problematic.
  • You can read foreign literature, do research, watch films and T.V. and listen to the radio, all in the target language.  This leads to enhanced personal development and higher self-esteem.
  • You understand other cultures and different ways of thinking.  This brings new knowledge, perspective, and friends.
  • You will understand your own language better as you compare it with your second or third language.
  • Your become more open-minded, less chauvinistic, and your worldview changes.
  • Studying the grammatical structures, vocabulary, and patterns of the foreign language improves your intellect.  Analytical skills and memory are enhanced.
  • Research has shown that the study of foreign languages improves mathematics and verbal SAT scores.
  • The study of foreign languages keeps the brain active.  Studies have found that it helps to prevent dementia.

WORK-RELATED REASONS:

  • Knowing a foreign language can bring you a new job or a promotion in the public or business sector.
  • Globalization has created a demand for workers who speak different languages and understand the related cultures.
  • You can work overseas.
  • A bilingual or multilingual worker has more value than one who only speaks one language.

NATIONAL REASONS:

  • Economic growth and national security depend to a great extent on national competence in foreign languages.
  • Ignorance of foreign languages puts government officials and businessmen at a grave disadvantage in international conferences and meetings with bilingual or multilingual counterparts.
  • Facility with foreign languages fosters national respect for the cultures of other peoples and ethnic groups.

I hope I have provided cogent answers for the question with which we started this post .  We need to communicate meaningfully with each other across linguistic frontiers in today’s world, to make it a better place.  Governments, health services, education, international business and industry, security forces, international welfare and relief agencies, non-governmental organizations, and many other entities desperately need bilingual and multilingual personnel.  It is important to study foreign languages at any age.

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18 thoughts on “Why Study Foreign Languages?

  1. One of my goals for 2014 is (re-)learning Spanish, which I haven’t taken in 20 years. Actually, our entire family will be using the Rosetta Stone software. I hope (in several years) to be able to better connect with and help Hispanic families that we live around and encounter, and I’ve been reading a lot lately how learning a foreign language helps develop your brain.

    But I’ve also heard from folks that if there was only room for 1 language in high school, that “language” should be computer programming. Might have a point, since in the future we will probably need/have automatic translators.

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    • Relearning Spanish is an excellent goal for you and your family. It will enrich your lives, help you to connect meaningfully with others and give you many enjoyable moments. I have doubts, however, about the ability or capacity of automatic translators to adequately replace multilingual human beings. As you know, a lot of meaning is conveyed in conversation in non-verbal ways such as facial expressions, gestures, etc.. Can machines do this? Can these automatic translators understand humour and subtle sarcasm? Can they differentiate among nuances in meaning carried by words that have similar meanings or look similar, but are used differently? Are they culturally sensitive? Can they handle regional idiomatic expressions?

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  6. Without motivation any student won’t be interested in learning foreign language. But there are so many reasons to do this! We just have to learn our kids the importance of speaking different languages. Therefore, thank you for useful article. I will ask my kids to read it.

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