The Importance of Learning a Foreign Language

Background

I’ve worked in the field of anthropological linguistics on a number of projects over the years. I’ve had the opportunity to learn on the ground from many different tribes and tribal members in different linguistic contexts who have shared their experiences with me as well. Specifically, I have worked in the field of language revitalization and education where I have worked with groups of people who want to make sure their language has as many rights and privileges as other languages; to ensure that their children will not be persecuted or put down due to their language choice. My field has taken me to many different parts of the world as I’ve collaborated on the development of dictionaries, ethnobotany textbooks, and language programs.

Foreign Language/ English as a Second Language

In addition to these projects, I have taught English as a Second Language to students from many different linguistic backgrounds as well. In teaching language, I have learned that one of the most important goals that students name when doing a self-assessment is to understand and to be understood. This may seem so obvious and straightforward, but I feel there are many ways we can invest ourselves in others to meet this need. Regardless of the students’ weak and strong skills, whether they have high fluency and low pronunciation, if their confidence while speaking a foreign language, compared to when they speak their native language, is very weak, they will feel insecure and hesitate to even practice the language they want to learn.

Because of this, I have found that it is so crucial to validate each utterance spoken by the learner. If what the student said was not clear, it’s important to ask them to reword or try again. By doing that, we work with others to negotiate meaning through conversation and we remind the student that they CAN be understood in the foreign language, they simply need patience and practice. As a learner of a foreign language, they are investing so much time and effort to communicate with others.

It’s so important to learn a second language. Whether it is acquired as a child or learned as an

adult, there are many benefits to speaking more than one language. Many studies have shown how bilingual students tend to perform better on standardized exams than their monolingual peers. More important than test scores, however, is the ability to interact in a cultural exchange. Learning a foreign language gives you access to a worldview that you cannot fully achieve as a monolingual. Cultural values and messages are encoded in the words we speak and are restricted to the semantic mapping our language teaches us. Being able to navigate different semantic networks, different cultural expectations and forms of speech give a person insight they cannot otherwise achieve.

The connection between language and identity

Because so much culture is described within language, language and identity are intrinsically tied to each other. Since they are so intertwined, to show respect to a person’s language is to show respect to the person and their background and culture as well. Just as identity can be so closely tied to language, social status gets tied to language as well. Have you ever heard a person get teased or made fun of because they spoke with a different accent? Children who speak with Southern accents too often get placed in remedial speech classes because their teachers perceive their accent as indicative of lacking education when actually its simply an

indicator of where the child grew up. When one accent or language is associate with education, power, or success, many children will learn to speak in that accent or language. This is what we see happening today with the loss of regional accents among children. More and more, the younger generations are speaking in a standardized American accent rather than regional accents such as those found in Alabama, Boston, or the boroughs of New York. This is happening around the world with languages as well. Babies in a multilingual environment who are in the process of acquiring language can identify which language carries the most social power. They learn that language and grow up not speaking the language with less social influence. This leads to massive language “death” which we are experiencing today. The current estimate is that if nothing is to be done, up to 80% of the worlds languages will cease to be spoken in the next 100 years. If that happens, we will lose so much valuable information, worldviews, customs and traditions, knowledge, and identity.

This is just one more reason why showing respect to a person’s culture, language, and efforts to learn a second language are so important. Let’s keep pushing to learn and teach foreign and second languages.

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