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What’s the value of learning a language?

What you need to know:

According to Pew Research Center, foreign language study is ubiquitous throughout Europe, with a median of 92% of high school students taking a foreign language class, while only 20% of high school students in the United States take a foreign language class. Enrollment in college level foreign language classes has been on the decline since 1965, according to the Modern Language Association of America.

English is the Lingua Franca of our time. Lingua Franca is a term used to describe a common second language that allows two people who speak different languages to communicate. It’s common applications include international business, aviation, research, politics, etc. English’s emergence as a Lingua Franca has given native English speakers speakers a huge advantage. Native English speakers don’t necessarily have to learn a second language to do business on an international level, unlike almost everyone else. This has led some to believe that foreign language study is therefore not as important or valuable for native English speakers.

The information age has brought many new, exciting technologies to our fingertips. One of these new technologies is that of translator apps. These apps allow for automatic translation of one language to another, sometimes even in real time. These apps are not always accurate, however. An article in Express details the results of Google’s tests of its own app, Google Translate. Google had human judges rate the accuracy of translations on a scale from 0 to 6. English to Spanish translations scored 5.43 on average, while Chinese to English translations scored 4.3 on average. This is most likely because Chinese is a highly contextual language when compared to English, which makes it much harder for a computer to translate out of context.

My Research

I set out to see whether or not my peers and teachers thought that these factors in any way diminished the value of learning a language. 

I began by creating an online survey. In this survey I asked various questions about individual experiences in language study, how useful of a skill they thought it was, and whether or not they thought language study is obsolete in the modern world. I then sent this list out to the rest of the senior class at my school. On a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being the highest), the importance of language study was rated a 3.6 on average. 70% of students said that they would continue to study foreign languages after high school, and 80% saw themselves using their foreign language skills after high school. 100% of students surveyed said they did not think foreign language study is obsolescent or will be made so in the near future.

Here is the survey if you would like to fill it out.

The second thing I did was interview two of my teachers. Both were french teachers, one former. I asked them three questions: “what do you think the value or importance of language study is”, “do you think translator apps like google translate will ever make language study obsolete”, and “what do you think the cultural value of a language is.”

There were many reasons they believed language study was valuable. The main reason was that, even though English is used as a Lingua Franca, it is still very valuable to know a language. Certain nuances may be lost in translation, or there may be an error in translation.

The same applies to translators too, nuances or contextual information is often lost which can mess up translation. This is especially true in context heavy languages, in which the meaning of a phrase can differ wildly based on the context. While translators might be useful in the short run, they will never really work at a higher level, as you can’t connect with someone in the same way.

Language is very linked to culture and vice versa. A language can reflect a lot about a culture, from what concepts a language has a word for, to the idioms and phrases of that language. The two are practically inseparable. Many cultures are also very proud and defensive of their language, as it is a huge part of their culture. France, for example, is very proud of their language, and they even have a council called L’Académie Française, who’s job it is to come up with new French words for foreign concepts, so that the language does not get over-saturated with loan words (a problem Japanese suffers from.) So, while it may be beneficial in the long run, it is very unlikely that we will ever adopt a universal language, simply because we’d be losing one of the fundamental pillars of our different cultures.

For this reason alone, I believe that language study will always remain relevant. As one of my teachers put it “language is culture and culture is language.”

My Response: why one should learn a language

There are a plethora of reasons why one should begin studying a language. It makes you a better candidate for a job or position, however I don’t think this is all that great of a reason to learn a language. I’d rather you think of language study as a window into a culture. You learn so much about a culture by studying their language, not to mention the fact that you can visit that place and communicate there, granted you’ve studied it long enough. I believe that studying a language is truly the best way to understand a culture, based on my personal experience and what others have told me.

Not to mention, learning language is fun. Sure its not all that fun at the beginning. It can be very frustrating and confusing at times, but, the moment you are first able to hold a conversation in that language, you will feel an indescribable feeling of happiness and satisfaction. It is a very gratifying process.

Learning language is not difficult, its just something you have to take day by day. You won’t always feel like you are improving, but you are. Its like going to the gym, its not instant gratification, it will take a while. That being said, whatever language you take, I’m sure you’ll be glad you took it in the end.

Works Cited:

Here is the link to my works cited page.

Comments:

I would love hearing your feedback! Do you think language study is valuable? Why or why not? What language(s) have you studied? Why or why not? If you have any interesting stories about language study I’d love to hear! Also, I’d really appreciate it if you could take the time to fill out the survey I linked above!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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COMMENTS: 8
  1. April 23, 2020 by susan

    Yes! It is invaluable BUT what I have observed over the years: American students take world languages but few become truly proficient. What your project reveals, however, is that the number of US students who take languages, whether they become proficient or not, is pretty small (especially as compared to language study in other countries). Wow! It seems like having the option of taking a world language isn’t widely available (although it is the norm in most independent schools) and then there is my question of how many people truly learn a second language and become fluent and able to use it far beyond the classroom. My older son has studied Mandarin for years and year, and I do think he has made noteworthy progress. He is going to college at NYU Shanghai (or we hope he will be able to, given the world situation right now), and we are thrilled that he will truly become fluent and will use the language every day to navigate all aspects of his life. For me it was life changing to gain proficiency with Spanish as a high school student, which came with spending a summer in Colombia (in tandem with high school studies). Now, however, I speak only a bit — just like exercise — you get out of shape if you don’t work out consistently. Thanks for thinking about this important topic and the larger question of what is of value to learn. Keep going with your Japanese studies!

  2. April 23, 2020 by Emily

    Hey George, I really enjoyed reading about your work. I actually opted out of taking one last year of Spanish as a senior this year because I felt like it was a waste of time. After reading your presentation, I feel like I shot down the opportunity to learn another language too quickly. I’ve realized how valuable learning a different language is, and I wish I had taken advantage of my school’s offered classes. I really love traveling, so learning different languages would be awesome, but also I think learning about other cultures makes people more open-minded and informed about the world around us. Sometimes, it can be hard to see the bigger picture outside of our country, but learning about the rest of the world and being able to see different points of view is paramount to a wholesome way of thinking. Great job!

  3. April 24, 2020 by Duncan

    George: This is an extremely interesting website! I think studying a language is very valuable, as not only does it help you explore more cultures, the process of learning a new language is great mental training, as it opens a new realm of critical thinking. I myself have studied Chinese for around 9 years and am fluent now, and go to China almost every summer to see my grandparents. I take great pride in my reading, writing, and speaking capabilities, and although at first, I wasn’t happy to have to learn it, find it now exceedingly gratifying to be able to communicate with my grandparents. I think that from my experience using translators (specifically google translate) , a LOT gets lost in translation from English to Chinese and vice versa, so although they can be helpful, actually knowing the language is far more useful and applicable. Thank you for this great project!

  4. April 24, 2020 by Rishi

    Very interesting website. I enjoyed your view of learning a language as a gateway to culture. I had never thought of this idea like that which was very unique. In my opinion, I believe learning a language is valuable. I have studied Spanish for over 6 years, and I have enjoyed it.

  5. April 24, 2020 by Grace

    I really enjoyed your presentation and your outlook on how important language is to understanding other cultures. I absolutely think learning a language is incredibly valuable. It helps people understand other cultures better and gives people the opportunity to communicate with people who do not share the same first language as them. I have studied two different languages in high-school: Chinese and Spanish. I originally studied them because most colleges expect you to have two years of language to apply. However, I really enjoy Chinese and I find value and joy in learning about a culture I am unfamiliar with.

  6. April 26, 2020 by Matt

    i cannot agree more with what you are saying about the satisfaction and reward you get once able to a a conversation in a second language. I myself am learning Mandarin and over the course of six years now, I have had no regrets. Being able to speak to someone whose language and culture is so different from your own is so special and boosts confidence way up. My only practice I have had is speaking to those that already live in English countries and one day I hope to go to China to really challenge myself and put my knowledge to the test.

  7. April 26, 2020 by Ellie

    I completely agree knowing two or more languages is incredibly valuable. It creates a desire to travel and experience different lifestyles. Learning a new language lets us truly appreciate other cultures to a deeper extent than for someone who is molongiul. I have been taking Spanish for 9 years and in university I hope to study abroad for a term. Last summer I travelled to Spain and went to a summer school where I was able to expand my vocabulary and improve conversational skills, but most importantly really submerged myself into the the Spanish lifestyle.

  8. April 27, 2020 by Daniel

    As a student from Slovakia, it is really a necessity for me to learn a second language, potentially even a third, given the opportunities across Europe I could get. English becomes a mandatory subject mostly from third grade (sometimes even first grade) of primary school, lasting until reaching 18. The skill of knowing a language is for me really important, as it can open up a whole new world with a different culture. Is a way of exploring history, manners and style of each country. I really liked your article and the research is very professional.

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