By Anoushka Oke
While students at Arlington High School are required to take at least two years of foreign language classes in order to graduate, this is often not enough preparation for the level of world language skills that colleges expect; many colleges prefer that students take four years of a language, to ensure advanced proficiency. But why does the university system place such an importance in studying and learning foreign languages?
The education system puts this emphasis on world languages because skill in a foreign language brings opportunity. By learning and becoming fluent in at least one other language, people give themselves many advantages.
Primarily, learning another language allows a person to become more eligible for jobs. Many job applications ask applicants whether or not they’re fluent in a second language because having a bilingual employee is beneficial to the company: an employee who can speak multiple languages can interact with foreign representatives and communicate with a wider range of customers. Those fluent in multiple languages also have an increased ability to travel to foreign countries to expand their business or make deals with potential foreign business partners.
According to a New American Economy report, “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.” The demand for bilingual employees is rising and will continue rising.
Aside from the usefulness of foreign languages when applying for a job, learning another language helps people learn about new cultures, which can help one understand the lives and experiences of people living in other countries. It can also lead to more enjoyable and more meaningful travel to places where English is less common, because knowing the language of a place allows one to communicate with the locals when travelling
The head of the language department at Arlington High School, Dawn Carney–who speaks French and understands some Spanish–also believes that foreign languages are a crucial skill to implement in the coming and future generations of students. Carney argues that the ability to speak a foreign language unlocks many other skills that are needed throughout life. “From the brain perspective”, she says, “people that are bilingual have the capacity to toggle back and forth between languages, and that helps them with other critical thinking and problem solving tasks.”
Carney explains how these additional skills gained by studying foreign language impact one’s thinking, including helping them become more open-minded: “when people can engage in those types of critical thinking skills and problem solving skills, then they have this capacity to look from the perspective of somebody else, and ask questions like ‘I wonder why…’ [instead of saying things like] ‘that’s wrong’ or ‘why did they do it backwards?’” She mentions that acquiring such skills can also benefit students when applying for a job.
Additionally, Carney mentions how her ability to speak French has advantaged her by broadening her range of communication. She explains that she is able to communicate with people in many foreign countries. Even outside of France and other French-speaking countries, Carney can get by in other countries that use Romance languages.
Carney also feels that being fluent in French has allowed her to communicate with more people within Boston. She gives an example of how she can speak with much of Greater Boston’s large Haitian population because French and Creole, which is a dialect similar to French, are both national languages in Haiti.
So despite the many benefits of learning a foreign language, why do many students complain about having to do it? It may be because it’s difficult, or because it requires too much thought, or because it adds to students’ ever-increasing workload.
The substantial benefits of learning foreign languages is why American schools should consider implementing language studies from an early age. In many places throughout the world, particularly in parts of Europe and South America, foreign languages are required to be taught from a young age. Being exposed to the language from an early age allows lots of foreign students to be fluent in more than one language, meaning that they will therefore enjoy the benefits of being bilingual.
Because of this system’s success in other countries, the United States should definitely try to implement it into our education system. The peak age for language learning is early elementary school, and we should be using this peak age to our advantage and start introducing kids to foreign languages while they have ease at learning it. That way, high school language classes would just be about practicing the language and making sure that one is still able to speak it; such classes would be much easier and less stressful than classes that teach students languages from the beginning, especially past the peak age.
By implementing such a change, students would have second-language skills with less stress and difficulty. Gaining these second-language skills would allow students to enjoy the benefits of knowing multiple languages.
“Demand for Bilingual Workers More than Doubled in 5 Years, New Report Shows.” New American Economy, New American Economy, 1 Mar. 2017, http://www.newamericaneconomy.org/press-release/demand-for-bilingual-workers-more-than-doubled-in-5-years-new-report-shows/.