Foreign-Language Learning: What the United States Is Missing Out On

April 20, 2010

By Ursula Oaks

It seemed a notably strange coincidence that the day after the Chronicle of Higher Education's fascinating article about foreign-language acquisition and its remarkable contributions to the human mind and to society, Inside Higher Ed reported that George Washington University's arts and sciences faculty had voted by an "overwhelming" margin not only to remove its foreign languages and cultures course requirement, but to also to set up the new requirements in such a way that introductory foreign language courses can no longer count toward fulfilling anydegree requirement in the college. At the same time, GW's curricular reform is apparently "designed to promote student learning in areas such as global perspectives and oral communications."

One wonders how "global perspectives" can happen without foreign language. But Catherine Porter (a former president of the Modern Language Association), writing in the Chronicle, puts it rather more bluntly. The lack of foreign-language learning in our society, she states, is "a devastating waste of potential." Students who learn languages at an early age "consistently display enhanced cognitive abilities relative to their monolingual peers." This isn't about being able to impress their parents' friends by piping up in Chinese at the dinner table – the research is showing that these kids can think better. Porter writes:

Demands that the language-learning process makes on the brain… make the brain more flexible and incite it to discover new patterns – and thus to create and maintain more circuits.

But there's so much more. Porter points out, as many others have, that in diplomatic, military, professional and commercial contexts, being monolingual is a significant handicap. In short, making the United States a more multilingual society would carry with it untold benefits: we would be more effective in global affairs, more comfortable in multicultural environments, and more nimble-minded and productive in daily life.

One of Porter's most interesting observations, to me, was about how multilingualism enhances "brain fitness." My own journey in languages is something for which I cannot claim any real foresight or deliberate intention, but by the age of 16, I spoke English, Hungarian, and French fluently. I've managed, through travel and personal and family connections, to maintain all three. One thing I know for sure is that when I get on the phone with my mother and talk to her in Hungarian for 20 minutes, or if I have to type out an email to a friend in Paris, afterwards I feel like I've had a mental jog on the treadmill: strangely energized, brain-stretched, more ready for any challenge, whether it's cooking a new dish or drafting an op-ed. And the connective cultural tissue created by deep immersion in another language cannot be overstated. When I went to Hungary during grad school to research my thesis, I figured: no problem, it's my native tongue. Yes, but I first learned it when I was a toddler, and never since then. The amount of preparation I had to do to be sure I didn't miss nuance or cultural cues and didn't draw conclusions based on erroneous translation, was significant, but well worth it. Time and again, I've realized how language can transform our interactions with one another. Porter's article is a wake-up call that neglecting foreign-language learning is hurting our country in more ways than we realize.


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