A Student’s Perspective: Five Reasons to Study Languages

international education panel

Marianne Zape speaking at ED’s “Succeeding Globally through International Education and Engagement Panel”

Recently, I participated in a panel discussion on ED’s international strategy, “Succeeding Globally Through International Education and Engagement.”  Maureen McLaughlin, senior advisor to Secretary Duncan and director of international affairs, asked me what advice I would give to U.S. students contemplating whether or not to study another language.

My suggestion? You absolutely should! For one, it’s fun, and beyond that, there are countless benefits. Here are my top five reasons for learning another language:

  1. Learn about new cultures and ideas. Language and culture are intertwined. Whatever language you choose to learn, it will always tell you something about the society in which it is spoken. Whether it’s through words whose meanings have evolved over time, popular sayings, or knowing cultural faux pas to avoid, you will learn more than just grammar and vocabulary.
  2. Better understand your own language. When you learn a new language, your natural reaction will probably be to compare it to your own. You’ll start to notice similarities and differences in mechanics and structure that will make you think more about your first language.
  3. Establish meaningful connections. Making an effort to speak to someone in his or her native language, even if you’re not the best at it, shows how interested you are in getting to know them. I’ve also learned that there is no better way to improve than to have a native speaker help you. They may not know that you’re familiar with their language at first glance, but when you make the effort, you might just get a really good tutor and a new friend. I did!
  4. Gain a professional advantage. Having foreign language skills can set you apart and give you an edge over the competition. Many sectors hire bilingual or multilingual candidates to avoid costly mistranslations, deliver services to non-English speakers more efficiently, and to gain access to documents unavailable in English. While researching the French Revolution for a class, I found so many intriguing sources–journals and letters–that weren’t in English. Familiarity with French allowed me to incorporate them in my work.
  5. Build resilience, confidence, and independence. Like all new things, learning languages can be daunting, but the challenges you face are part of the process that make it even more of an achievement! Knowing that you have the skills to navigate on your own and communicate effectively provides a sense of security and comfort even in an unfamiliar environment.

Be it personal or professional, learning another language is a truly meaningful experience with benefits that can last a lifetime.

Please click on this link to watch the full May 23 panel discussion.

Marianne Zape, an intern with ED’s International Affairs Office and a student at UC San Diego, speaks Tagalog, English and French.

Listening to Language Educators

In every café, you could hear Spanish, Chinese, French and Italian. Language teachers gathered in clusters in and around the Denver Convention Center, where 6,500 language teachers and administrators gathered for this November’s American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) Expo.

I am a life-long Spanish teacher and ACTFL member. I attended the conference this year as a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow in order to reach out to language teachers, conduct a roundtable discussion, and provide information about ED’s services and programs. The roundtable experience gave me the change to listen to language educators who were attending ACTFL.

Maryann at the conference

Maryann Woods-Murphy & Nusrat Sohail at the Department of Education’s ACTFL exhibit.

I met Rebbecca Pittenger, the coordinator of Kentucky’s Georgetown College Spanish Immersion Program. Pittenger is a teacher who is passionate about helping her students gain language proficiency. “We’ve taken an immersion model and are applying it to college work,” she said. “We’re a small school in Kentucky, without a large Hispanic population, and we’ve taken on language learning. Students learn philosophy, math and other general education courses, all taught in Spanish!”

Sara Hofler, the Principal of the Paragon School in Orlando, Fla., makes sure students in her specialized K-12 program for students affected by autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, learn German. People often ask her why such students need a foreign language. “You never know where it will lead– students need many opportunities to give them a window to a new world,” Sara told me. “My experiences in Germany and with German changed my life so I expect it will theirs!”

When I asked the language teachers what concerned them the most, the overwhelming response was that too many college students arrive with little proficiency in foreign language because they haven’t been able to benefit from the kind of well-articulated programs that produce strong language skills. In addition, some college programs that train language teachers don’t even require a study abroad component – an experience that is fundamental for a non-native speaker who wants to acquire advanced proficiency. Many of the teachers worried that budget constraints are forcing districts to use electronic language programs to substitute for teachers. Even though many of these 21st Century tools are promising, the teachers believed that they should be used to extend the reach of a language teacher, not to replace him or her.

Secretary Duncan understands how important international education and language learning is for students in the United States. Last spring Duncan quoted Nelson Mandela:”If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” The Secretary added that “we must improve language learning and international education at all levels if our nation is to continue to lead in the global economy; to help bring security and stability to the world; and to build stronger and more productive ties with our neighbors.”

Click here to watch Arne Duncan’s message about International Education.

Maryann Woods-Murphy

Maryann is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Allendale, NJ.