By Danika McClure
The ability to speak a foreign language is a commodity that is becoming all too rare in the Western world. This is due, in part, to a lack of emphasis on the study of foreign languages in schools, especially at the college level.
Currently, less than 10 percent of Americans can speak a language other than their native tongue fluently. In the U.S., individuals who speak English are notoriously monolingual. In Europe, by contrast, half of the population has the ability to speak another language and 80 percent of students are conversational in at least one other language.
Most American universities have some sort of minimal language requirement that varies depending on your particular major. Many students are able to opt out of this requirement by taking a placement test, or by providing some kind of proof of language competency.
However, some universities are beginning to remove this option, meaning that all students, regardless of their language competency, will be required to study an additional language. It’s not hard to see why, as in an increasingly globalized economy multilingualism is an asset to all students.
One of the most valuable traits an employee can possess is the ability to speak a different language, especially in the workplace. In fact, research shows that the ability to speak a different language translates favorably in the workplace environment. In fact, it may be a make-or-break factor when applying for positions in an oversaturated and competitive job market.
“In our globalized world, it has become even more essential in the job market to know another language,” argues one Penn State student. “Companies and businesses have a natural desire to expand their existing networks. Having fluency in another language gives an edge on any resume by showing employers potential to converse with an entirely different group of people. Employers would be more apt to send a prospective employee abroad if he or she shows proficiency in another language.”
Not only is the ability to speak a foreign language objectively useful to employers, it also comes with a number of cognitive benefits that are helpful in the workplace environment.
For example, some studies indicate that students who receive instruction in a second language are more creative and better at solving complex problems, are able to multitask more easily, and can better communicate with the populations they serve.
Building Empathy and Cultural Competence
Recent statistics have shown that America is becoming increasingly more diverse, and the data reveals that growth among racial and ethnic minority populations outpaces that of Caucasians. In other words, we live in an increasingly multicultural and diverse world.
Learning a new language gives you the unique opportunity to immerse yourself in a different culture. This, in turn, helps you to be more empathetic and socially aware of the experiences and ideas of people who come from different cultural backgrounds than you do.
“Communicating isn’t just about talking. It’s also about listening and hearing the other party. Without both avenues, communication hasn’t been accomplished,” notes the Communication Department at USC Annenberg. “This is especially true when you encounter a language barrier. You can have someone translate another person’s words or thoughts and have them translate yours in return, but have you truly come to understand each other?”
“There is a buffer there that prevents you from completely connecting with someone from a different culture. If you can communicate with a person in their own language, you’re eliminating that buffer. You’re understanding each other, promoting empathy and connectivity.”
Through learning a new language, students are often taught to critically think about the stereotypes they have surrounding a different culture, especially when it relates to food, appearance, conversation styles, social dynamics, or even simply understanding the intention and thought-process of non-native speakers.
“Speaking Spanish not only allows me to communicate with Spanish-speakers but it helps me better understand the intent of non-native speakers when they are speaking English, and to be more patient with errors,” writes Liz Reisberg for Inside Higher Ed. “Anyone who has communicated in a second language has, at some point, been tripped up by false cognates, embarrassed by words in a foreign language with multiple meanings, or horrified to discover the effect of a slight mispronunciation was to express something unintended. If you have struggled with another language you are more likely to hear more than words when listening to someone who is not a native-speaker of English. You listen for subtleties in the context that help you infer what the speaker is trying to say, even if it hasn’t been expressed clearly.”
Expanding Educational Experience
While there are infinite reasons to study a new language, many students choose to study foreign languages not only for the vocational and cultural benefits, but do so simply because they want to enrich their educational experience.
Languages are a part of a traditional liberal-arts curriculum, and give students the opportunity to connect with the humanities in a way. Languages are a great way for students to expand their educational experience, just as taking a history, archaeology, or biology class would, while providing them skills that are instantly useful and practical in the world outside of the classroom.
Given the numerous benefits present when it comes to studying foreign languages, it’s time that universities are beginning to make them a requirement for graduation.
Danika McClure is a writer and musician from the northwest who sometimes takes a 30 minute break from feminism to enjoy a TV show. You can follow her on twitter @sadwhitegrrl