Monday, March 13, 2006

A couple of reasons for "bothering" with a foreign language

Readers of my blogs may know that I always advocate for people learning foreign languages. Personally, I think knowing other languages makes a person into a "well-rounded" individual, and it opens more opportunities. Other reasons I could present include that a person can have better critical thinking and cognitive skills, gaining an exposure to cultures and literatures, and with recent events, better opportunities to enhance intelligence efforts in the conflicts against terrorism. But, I will leave those for a future post and focus on a couple of things.

I was prompted to write this when I saw this small post from The Literary Saloon. The blogger cites Jason Sheltzer of the Daily Princetonian, who sees learning foreign languages as an aggravation. The Literary Saloon often discusses the severe lack of good foreign works translated into English, something I have discussed as well before. Anyhow, Mr. Sheltzer says:

Thankfully, for those of us who could never master le subjonctif, English is the dominant language in nearly all fields of scientific endeavor, business and diplomacy and is generally recognized as the de facto standard for international communication. Requiring proficiency in a foreign language as a prerequisite to graduation is an unnecessary source of aggravation to many students and is tangential to Princeton's present-day goals as an institution.

This remark made me wonder, and it inspired me to write a thought or two on why learning a foreign language is more than a mere aggravation. So, why bother with foreign languages?

First, there are all the benefits a person gains from knowing other languages, some of which I mention at the opening of this post. Sandy Cutshall, in a short article for Educational Leadership, writes on this topic:

"Multilingualism carries many benefits. Individuals who speak, read, and understand more than one language can communicate with more people, read more literature, and benefit more fully from travels to other countries. Further, people who can communicate in at least two languages are a great asset to the communities in which they live and work."

From my own experience, being bilingual means I can have a broader range of choices in reading material. Also, being bilingual is extremely helpful in my workplace where we serve a large Hispanic population, many of them Spanish speakers. While most can speak English fine, they do find it reassuring and welcoming when a librarian can speak their language. And then there are the patrons who are not as fluent in English. This is just a small example.

Allow me to offer a couple of thoughts for future librarians. Those seeking jobs may see a good portion of job postings asking for folks with foreign language skills. While Spanish is a popular language request in such ads, I have seen requests for other languages as well. Knowing Spanish opened a few more options for me. Imagine if I was also fluent in, say, Arabic or Chinese. For future librarians, foreign language skills are not just for high level academic bibliographers.

Again, there are plenty of opportunities for those willing to learn other languages. Overall, whether for librarians or those in other career paths, being bilingual or multilingual can give people an edge in seeking employment. Tenille Robinson, writing for Black Enterprise, cites a scholar on this topic:

"'Learning a foreign language is absolutely another evolutionary step that we don't have a choice but to take on in order to remain competitive,' explains Jason Chamber, assistant professor with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 'We're clearly seeing that people who speak multiple languages have employment advantages.'"

OK, so let's look at it from a business angle if the above is not convincing some people yet. Many businesspeople in the United States figure that everyone else knows English, so there's no need to learn other languages. Cutshall writes on this:

"In addition, the widespread perception of English as the international language of business has contributed to a pervasive belief in the United States that everyone should learn English and that Americans simply don't need to learn another language. In fact, the international language of business is always the language of the client or customs. If businesses in the United States don't speak the language of their customers those businesses end up a competitive disadvantage."

Competitiveness is supposed to be a trait of American business, yet by failing to address the need of knowing other languages they lose a bit of that competitiveness. Mr. George Green chief executive of Hearst Magazines, may illustrate this point. An article in The Wall Street Journal describes him as an executive who does not feel a need to learn other languages. When he travels, people he deals with speak English, and he uses translators in places like China and Japan. However, he may be missing out on certain details and subtleties. According to the WSJ article:

"But failing to speak the native language of a parent company could hamper a manager's advancement and even his or her ability to do a current job well. And whether at companies based in the U.S. or overseas, executives can miss out on informal conversations, or risk being misinterpreted, literally, if they don't speak the local language."

Sure, Mr. Green can afford translators, but what can him and others like him be missing because they themselves don't know a language or know a culture? You see, language knowledge can help you understand other cultures as well. This may include small cultural cues and nuances. If that is not enough, here is another item to consider for businesspeople. This comes from the same WSJ article:

"Not only are more U.S. companies now owned by overseas parents--including DaimlerChrysler AG, Bentelsmann, Diageo PLC, and Anglo-Dutch Unilever PLC, to name a few-- but international mergers and acquisitions often mean companies are owned by a succession of overseas corporate parents, each with a different native language."

I could argue for the benefits of learning a foreign language with other reasons as well. We could look at how learning a foreign language can enhance cognitive skills and at how such studies could help to dispel racism and ignorance regarding people in other parts of the world. We can even look at the situation today with the conflicts around the world. Maybe we can do that in future posts. For now, this is a small start. I can say that being bilingual has worked for me. If nothing else, it could help us better understand others around the world or around the corner. For some people, it may keep them from being the butt of the old joke:

What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.

References used for this post:

Please note I used a periodical database to locate some of these articles, so no direct links here. However, the citation should enable readers to locate them or ask a librarian to find them if interested.

Cutshall, Sandy. "Why We Need 'The Year of Languages.'" Educational Leadership 62.4 (Dec. 2004/Jan. 2005): 20-23.

Kranhold, Kathryn, et. al. "Lost in Translation?" The Wall Street Journal 18 May 2004: B1.

Robinson, Tennille M. "Hable Espanol." Black Enterprise 36.2 (Sep. 2005): 72.


suburban wonder said...

This is a wonderful post. I'll be linking to it on my blog. I got here via EdWonk.

PS - I'm a french teacher!

Jenne said...

Excellent post. I speak Italian and German well enough to live in the country, but not quite well enough to have a rousing political debate. I'm working on Spanish and Egyptian Arabic now.

Recently, I helped a patron from Tunisia. As you would expect, English is her fifth language, and the one she is least proficient in (although she speaks better English than many native-born caucasian Americans!) I was helping her with some complicated database projects. We later started talking about languages and I mentioned that I knew some Italian and some German (she also speaks French.) She told me she could tell that I had lived overseas and could speak other languages, even though our encounters were entirely in English.

Knowing other languages helps people immensely and changes people in ways they might never put a finger on. Because I understand Italian and German, I can phrase my English in a way that is easier for people to understand. I think it gives the brain a flexibility in thinking.

This is why I insisted that my older son take Spanish in high school. He spoke German and Italian once upon a time, but let the skills lapse after being teased by older American relatives.

Angel, librarian and educator said...

Bronwen: Welcome and thanks for stopping by. EdWonk and his Carnival are definitely must-reads on my Bloglines.

Jenne: Welcome as well. Hope your further studies in language go well. I will admit I would love to learn Arabic, but I also admit to some trepidation. What you noticed about your Tunisian patron is something I have often noticed of people from around the world who speak English as a second (third, fourth. . .) language. They often apologize for not being clear, and yet, they are clearer than most so-called natives.

Overall, learning other languages has so many benefits; the cognitive ones are definitely something that needs to be written about as well. I figured starting with a business angle would get some attention, I mean, money talks as they say.

Best, and keep on blogging.