Why Learning Languages Is as Important as Ever

CC BY 2.0. The LEAF Project -- Studying Spanish

One writer claims it's pointless now that English is so widely spoken. I beg to differ.

Simon Jenkins thinks learning foreign languages is pointless. In an article for The Guardian published last week, he argues that there are more efficient ways to learn a language if required for work, such as an immersion lab, instead of “sitting in a schoolroom for an hour a week for years – the perfect way not to learn a language, but to forget one.” He says that language classes appeal to the education system because they are “easy to test, quantify, and regiment”; and that English has become a lingua franca for the world. (Presumably he studied Latin in order to make that reference.) In other words, leave the hard work to everyone else.

Reactions have been fierce and emotional. The newspaper published a list of letters from various language experts, pointing out the fallacies and gaps in Jenkins’ stance. As someone who has dedicated years of my life to studying languages (I speak four fluently and have studied others), I had a strong reaction as well. It got me thinking about why I believe so strongly in the importance of language study, how it has benefitted me, and why I will insist on my children learning languages to the best of their ability.

I’d argue that language is education. It is a portal through which a student can travel to discover exactly what Jenkins says is being destroyed by the ubiquity of computers in the classroom – “the wonders of the scientific world, the glories and horrors of Europe’s history, the human drama of literature, the full mystery of the global environment, [and] the life skills of speaking, listening, debating, personal presentation and confidence.” I cannot think of a single subject that does a better job at bringing together all these facets than learning another language.

You learn so much more than grammar and vocabulary. It leads automatically to discussions about culture, history, art, humor, logic, geography, environmental issues, and food, all of which lead to a better understanding of an entire nation of people. It makes foreign people more knowable and less intimidating.

This moves into my next point, which is that knowing a foreign language puts one at a tremendous advantage, both personally and professionally. Knowing a language is a sign of respect for another culture, and the speaker, in turn, will be respected. Indeed, one commenter on Jenkins’ article agrees:

“Those who believe in English as a lingua franca should try negotiating a deal in English with foreigners who can fall back on their own language to discuss details among themselves while you look on in uncomprehending silence.”

It makes me think of an awful time when my family and I found ourselves homeless in Recife, a rough city in northeastern Brazil. While staying in a cramped hotel room, I frantically searched rental ads, looking for an apartment to stay. If I didn’t speak Portuguese, I would have been limited to English tourist websites, which featured only short-term rentals and were astronomically priced. Instead, I was able to make inquiries about local rentals, getting us out of a stressful and unviable situation fairly quickly.

Language adds unrivalled depth to travel experiences. I think of it as a key that opens unexpected doors. While living in Sardinia, I acquired a tight-knit group of girlfriends with whom I still communicate fourteen years later – in Italian, of course. If I hadn’t learned the language, we wouldn’t have gotten to know each other. It wouldn’t have led to the trips, the meals, the jokes, the beach days, the parties, the countless shared memories that we cherish to this day. Instead, I might have a collection of pictures of standing in front of famous Sardinian landmarks – but where’s the fun in that? As Dr. Thomas Bak replied to The Guardian:

“If all you want from Germany is a selfie in front of the Brandenburg Gate, you won’t need any German. But to understand German history, culture and people, do business with them and learn from them, you’ll be better off learning at least a bit of their language.”
streets of Florence

© K Martinko -- The next generation: My son wanders the streets of Florence with one of my old Sardinian schoolmates, a friendship made possible through the acquisition of language.

Tied to the travel theme, learning a local language is a counterpoint to the environmentally destructive industrial-style tourism that's creating such distress in Europe this summer. It says, "I care enough about your home and your people to invest time in learning how to communicate." It is the very essence of slow tourism, requiring a major personal investment, which is the direction in which our travel plans should be moving.

Jenkins says there’s a problem with learning languages, but I believe the problem lies in the method of teaching, not the fact that it’s taught. In Canada, where I live, it’s common for students to spend years in mandatory French classes and have little to show for it. My mother, a former core French high school teacher, complained about the French immersion students who showed up in her grade 12 class without being able to converse properly. Compare that to the foreign students I’ve met from Europe and Asia who speak multiple languages comfortably by their teen years; clearly, our teaching system is flawed.

We need to figure out how to normalize multilingualism, how to get kids and teachers alike excited about it, how to inspire and immerse. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about studying languages, it helps to fall in love. Whether it’s falling in love with a whole culture, cuisine, music, a geographical region, or an individual, it helps to feel a deep affinity to a language. That passion will pull you through the darkest grammar funks.

Does Jenkins even speak another language himself? Somehow I suspect not, because fluency is one of those things that, unless you’ve experienced it, you cannot understand the pleasure that goes along with it. Nobody who has ever mastered another language would ever want to undo that experience; it’s like wishing away the skill of playing an instrument.

Studying and speaking foreign languages has enriched my life tremendously, which is why I will encourage my kids to soak up as many as they can throughout their lives. It can only make the world a better place.